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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - NEW DELHI: Thousands of people in an Indian Himalayan town are facing relocation as authorities on Tuesday pressed ahead with evacuation efforts across the temple city that is sinking due to land subsidence.
Joshimath, a town of 25,000 people in Chamoli district, in the northern state of Uttarakhand, is on a key Hindu pilgrim circuit. It lies near the China border, on a hillside where two valleys meet at an altitude of more than 1,800 meters.
In the 1970s, a government study warned that the town was sinking, and recommended a ban on large-scale construction work in the area, but the warning was not heeded.
Since then, the location has turned into a busy gateway for hundreds of thousands of tourists and pilgrims bound every year for the Hindu temple town of Badrinath, 20 kilometers away.
But in the past two months, hundreds of houses in the town have developed dangerous cracks and on Monday it was declared a disaster-prone zone.
“Around 400 people have been moved to safer places in view of the cracks in their houses,” Nand Kishore Joshi, a disaster management officer involved in assessing the situation in Joshimath, told Arab News.
Tirath Singh Rawat, a local parliamentarian belonging to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, said that more than 600 houses had already been marked for evacuation.
“We are still assessing it and a team from Delhi is visiting the area to assess the situation,” he added.
Local authorities have announced demolition plans across the city, starting with two big hotels to prevent other buildings from being swallowed into the ground.
“Under the supervision of the Central Building Research Institute, the demolitions of the two buildings are going to start today because both the structures were found unsafe,” Himanshu Khurana, the district magistrate of Chamoli, told Arab News.
With at least 30 percent of the city sinking, residents fear being forced to leave their ancestral land for good.
Mohan Singh, an Ayurveda doctor based in Joshimath, said: “My family has been living in the city for generations. How can we think of moving out of the city? We will not go anywhere; the government will have to find a way out to keep us here.”
He blamed the current situation on large infrastructure projects in the region.
Several hydroelectric power projects have been built around the town, with roads laid and tunnels bored to improve connectivity, despite the area being assessed by geologists as geologically fragile.
“The drilling started for a hydroelectric project a decade ago has caused maximum damage.
“This is the place of Hindu saint Shankaracharya, and main pilgrim centers are here; there should be a limit to the footfall in this region,” Singh added.
Not only residents but also environmentalists are on alert over construction works.
“Lots of explosions and drilling for hydroelectric projects are happening, which are weakening the basic foundation of Joshimath,”
Kavita Upadhyay, an environmental researcher based in Uttarakhand, said.
“There is no proper drainage system within Joshimath. There is no system to dispose of the wastewater. All the wastewater goes within the ground, and it sinks the fine material further down into the ground, this also leads to land sinking.”
Delhi-based environmentalist Vimlendu Jha warned that the situation may soon spread way beyond Joshimath.
“The resilience of the Himalayas can’t be tested further. Many Himalayan towns and villages will sink in coming years,” he said.
Experts have for decades warned over the development model pursued in Uttarakhand.
“There are more than 66 tunnels being constructed in various parts of Uttarakhand, and also the dams, that are shaking up the entire state for decades, despite all the experts warning against them.
“In fact, in the entire Himalayan region, starting from Dharamshala to Arunachal, the large-scale infrastructure projects are posing a threat to the fragile Himalayan ecosystem,” Jha added.
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