“We had to come to our homes many times in a day from the relief camp we were staying at to take care of our farm and livestock. Now, we are staying at our homes all day because we are not getting any food at the relief camp,” says Sunaina Saklani, a resident of Ward No. 07 at Sunil village in Joshimath.

  • For those living in temporary shelters, earning a livelihood is turning out to be a major challenge. Joshimath residents are therefore, returning to their homes that have developed cracks after the town started ‘sinking’ in January 2023.
  • Due to the non-disclosure of the investigation reports of the Joshimath crisis, an atmosphere of fear has gripped the town. There is panic among local residents and the tourists. The impact on tourism has been affecting the livelihoods of people.
  • Pre-fabricated huts are being built at Dhak, a village located about 12 km from Joshimath, to rehabilitate the disaster- affected people. Many families who are dependent on agriculture or own small businesses don’t want to live too far from their occupation sites.

Several houses in Joshimath town in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand developed huge cracks in January this year. Following this, the administration declared several houses unsafe for habitation and shifted many families to relief camps. Sunaina’s family was one such.

Due to these cracks, hundreds of buildings were on the verge of collapse. According to the Joshimath Disaster Bulletin published on May 8, 2023, a total of 868 buildings have developed cracks. In Ravigram Ward, 161 buildings are affected, the highest in Joshimath, whereas, Lower Bazaar is the least affected area where 38 buildings have developed cracks. Apart from this, 181 buildings are in the unsafe zone. The maximum number of these are in the Singhdhar ward (98). A total of 378 members from 96 families displaced from these houses are living in relief camps, while 617 members of 200 families are either staying with their relatives or in rented houses.

Sunaina Saklani's damaged house. Because of lack of facilities at relief camps, Saklani’s family has decided to stay back in this house. Photo by Satyam Kumar/ Mongabay.
Sunaina Saklani’s damaged house. Because of lack of facilities at relief camps, Saklani’s family has decided to stay back in this house. Photo by Satyam Kumar/ Mongabay.

Shadow over the Chardham Yatra

Joshimath is an important tourist spot and a religious town. However, for people living in and around Joshimath, the town is also important from an economic point of view. Many people living in the town and villages close by are dependent on Joshimath for employment. People work as tourist guides, priests, flower and prasad (a devotional offering) sellers. Many own small restaurants and hotels.

Since last month, the famous Chardham Yatra has started. Lakhs of devotees from all over the country come to Uttarakhand to visit the four major pilgrimage centers—Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri. Joshimath is an important gateway and halting spot for tourists who wish to visit Badrinath.

A view of Joshimath from Narsingh Temple. Photo by ArmouredCyborg/ Wikimedia Commons.
A view of Joshimath from Narsingh Temple. Photo by ArmouredCyborg/Wikimedia Commons.

After the town started “sinking” in January and buildings developed cracks, the administration opened relief camps for the locals. Some of the schools, guest houses and hotels were converted into temporary relief shelters.

It has been more than four months since the Joshimath disaster, but so far only 15 prefabricated huts have been built. On the other hand, since the commencement of the Yatra, the hotel owners are under tremendous pressure to request the displaced families to vacate the hotels and make space for the incoming tourists.

Atul Sati, the convenor of the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, says, “On January 5, an agreement was reached between the government and us that until the displaced families are not provided with permanent accommodation, arrangements should be made so that they can live in prefabricated huts. It’s been almost four months, but these huts are not ready yet.”

He informed that earlier, the hotel owners were requesting people to vacate the hotels but now, as per the new deadline, people could stay in temporary accommodations until May 31. However, there is no clarity on where these people will go after the extension period is over. There are many other reasons why people are forced to leave these hotels.

“By the end of February, the hotels stopped providing us with meals. We had to go to the municipality building at lunch or dinner time. But it’s about 12 km from our hotel as well as our home,” said Sunaina.

Deprived of food and basic facilities at relief camps, people are forced to return to their homes that are not necessarily fit for living.

Shashi Devi, a resident of Ward 04 in Singhdhar, says, “My husband has diabetes, so we have to take special care of his diet. But in the hotel where we were arranged to stay at, everyone was served the same food due to which my husband used to fall ill frequently.”

Due to the decreasing facilities in the relief camps, people deprived of their food and all household facilities are returning to their disaster-hit homes.

She adds, “Apart from the basic necessities, my husband requires specific things like warm water for drinking and hand compress. These facilities are available only at home. So we decided that we will no longer stay in the relief camp but at our home so that I can take care of my husband.”

People return to unsafe homes

The disaster-affected families were initially moved to temporary relief shelters. The initial deadline to stay in these temporary homes was set as March 31, 2023. When no alternate solution could be found, the deadline was first extended to April 30 and then to May 31, 2023.

People say that the administration has extended the deadline, but they no longer are getting enough facilities at these temporary shelters. Apart from this, for the last four months, the personal lives of these people have been badly affected. Different aspects of their lives like employment, livelihood, farming-related activities, and education of children, have come to a standstill. Due to this, many families are now returning to their homes that have developed cracks and have been declared unsafe.

Sunaina Saklani’s cowshed. She had to walk down from the relief camp every morning and evening to take care of the cows. Photo by Satyam Kumar/Mongabay.
Sunaina Saklani’s cowshed. She had to walk down from the relief camp every morning and evening to take care of the cows. Photo by Satyam Kumar/ Mongabay.

“We were given two rooms in a hotel nearby. All three meals were provided. We are into farming and we have 15 cows. We have to tend to them every morning. We had to come home every day and most of our time was spent in the field and while taking care of our cows,” says Sunaina.

She continues, “It was manageable for sometime but it’s been four months. There is no clarity on what will happen to our house. No one knows for how long we have to stay like this. That’s why we decided to live in the house and take one day at a time.”

Dev Kunyal, a resident of Joshimath, studies in Rajiv Gandhi Abhinav Awasiya Vidyalaya, and lives in the school’s hostel. His family lives in Ward 01, Gandhinagar. Dev was preparing for his Class 10 exams when the disaster hit Joshimath. It was a stressful time for him.

“When our house started developing cracks and we had to vacate our house, I was preparing for my high school exams. Though I tried my best, I could not focus. I feared losing my home. I was under a lot of psychological pressure, which would distract me from my studies. I would think about home often,” says Dev.

Since Dev’s school is only up to Class 10, he will now have to leave this school and the residential facility and go elsewhere for further studies. There are other schools in Joshimath that are up to class 12th, but Dev’s house is no longer fit for living. Even after so many months, the family has not been given a permanent residence due to which Dev is not able to take such an important decision related to his studies.

“If I take admission in any school in Joshimath and our family has to shift somewhere else, then it will affect my studies badly. If I look for a school in some other city, the cost will be very high. We have a grocery store, but in all these months, we have not been able to earn enough from that,” says Dev.

“There are many cracks in our house, but one room is relatively safe. So, we have been living here. But for how long? When it rains, it becomes messy. But we got sick of living in relief camps. It’s better to be at home. If something happens, we will perish along with our homes,” says Shashi Devi.

Joshimath residents worry for their safety as they return to their damaged houses. Photo by Manish Kumar/ Mongabay.
Joshimath residents worry for their safety as they return to their damaged houses. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

Livelihood issues and distance from Dhak

The administration has made temporary accommodation arrangements for the affected families at Dhak village, situated on the Joshimath-Tapovan road. It was decided that prefabricated huts would be built here. However, Dhak is 12 km away from Joshimath, so many families who are dependent on agriculture or own small businesses do not want to go all the way to Dhak.

The state Rural Works Department (RWD) has authorised National Thermal Power Corporation Limited (NTPC) and Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) to build a total of 4,000 prefabricated huts for the affected families.

“We have more than five nalis (approx. 10,800 sq ft) land in Sunil village where we have grown more than 100 apple trees. We have also cultivated potatoes, peas and cabbage on our land. We have to keep a tight vigil because wild animals tend to damage these crops. Simply put, we earn our livelihood from here. How will we take care of our fields if we shift to Dhak?” Sunaina asks.

Veena Devi, a resident of Gandhinagar ward, runs a tea and grocery shop near her house, which is the main source of income for her family. “Since our shop is on the Badrinath Road and opposite the Joshimath Degree College, we earn well from this shop. Our house too developed cracks and we had to vacate our house. Presently, we are living at the Kali Kamli Dharamshala. We are being told that we would be provided with accommodation at Dhak. Yes, we will get a roof over our head, but who will run this shop if we move there? How will we earn money? I have two sons and two daughters who are studying in schools and colleges now. There are no education institutions in Dhak. If we go there then what will happen to our children’s education?” Veena asks.

Sense of insecurity, fewer tourists 

The news of Joshimath’s landslide was covered by almost all major media organisations in the country. Some international outlets reported on the issue as well. Small business owners in Joshimath believe that because of such wide-spread coverage, tourists are now hesitating to come here.

Nain Singh Bhandari, the head of traders’ union in Joshimath, says,“In the beginning of this year, some houses in Joshimath developed cracks, but this does not mean that the entire town is precarious. But after seeing the visuals on television, fewer tourists came in the winter season. The Badrinath Yatra has just started but bookings in the hotels of Joshimath are very less. Last year this time, we were taking advance bookings.”

“If tourists come to Joshimath, they will stay in hotels, eat food and drink tea in restaurants, roam around and shop. That’s how taxi drivers, vegetable vendors, milkmen and other businessmen earn their income. They are dependent on these tourists. The absence of tourists will have a direct impact on the economy of Joshimath,” adds Singh.

Kamal Raturi, the spokesperson of the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, says,“The people of Joshimath are still living in fear. The occurrence of any  minor incident in Joshimath creates an atmosphere of fear. It happens because there is a lot of misinformation.”

Studies on landslides in Joshimath were conducted by eight institutions in the country. The reports were submitted to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) long ago.

Raturi believes that because this report is not being made public, tourists are avoiding coming to Joshimath.

The influx of tourists to Joshimath has reduced. Photo by Manish Kumar/ Mongabay.
The influx of tourists to Joshimath has reduced. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.

“Due to this, there is confusion and fear among locals and the visiting tourists. If this report is made public, there will be less fear. All those who generate their employment from Joshimath would be able to make appropriate arrangements based on the findings of the report,” he says.

Mongabay-India tried to contact the Deputy District Magistrate and District Magistrate, Chamoli to know about the permanent arrangements being made for the displaced families and the losses suffered by hotel owners in the tourist season. Both the officials could not be contacted.

This article is written by  Satyam Kumar  and republished from Mongabay

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