Sinking land forces hundreds to leave Indian temple town

LUCKNOW, India (AP) — Authorities in an Indian Himalayan city have halted construction activities and begun moving hundreds of people into temporary shelters after a temple collapsed and cracks appeared in more than 600 houses from the collapse, officials said Saturday.

Residents of Joshimath city in Uttarakhand state say they started noticing cracks in houses, especially after floods in the region in 2021. No injuries were reported in the temple collapse late Friday and those living nearby had left the area a day earlier .

Himanshu Khurana, a district administrator, said more than 60 families have been shifted to government relief camps. The number will probably go up to 600 families, says the media.

Television images also showed cracks in roads, which impeded the movement of vehicles.

Ranjit Sinha, a top state disaster management official, said the immediate cause of the cracks “appears to be the faulty drainage system, which has resulted in water leakage under the houses causing them to sink.”

The government will pay 4,000 rupees ($50) per month for six months to those made homeless in Joshimath, a temple town of about 25,000 people that sits at an altitude of 1,890 meters (6,200 feet) and falls on important Hindu pilgrimage and hiking circuits , Khurana said.

Tens of thousands of devotees on their way to Badrinath and Him Kund Sahib, important Hindu and Sikh pilgrimages, pass through Joshimath, 490 kilometers northeast of New Delhi. The huge flow of pilgrims and tourists caused the city to expand exponentially over the years with the massive construction of buildings and roads, which some experts have linked to land subsidence.

The construction activities temporarily halted include Chardham all-weather road – a flagship federal government undertaking to connect various Hindu pilgrimages, a project to set up rope-pulled trolleys to transport pilgrims and tourists in nearby Auli, and hydroelectric power stations.

The region witnessed a devastating cloudburst – an extreme rainfall in a short period of time – that resulted in hundreds of deaths in 2013 as well as severe flooding in 2021. Experts say rapidly shrinking glaciers, partly due to climate change, is also another reason why the region hit by repeated disasters.

“Between 2015 and mid-2021, at least 7,750 extreme rainfall and cloudburst events have been recorded in Uttarakhand. Such events are detrimental to Joshimath as they can increase the number of buildings affected, ultimately exacerbating the vulnerability of the local population,” said Kavita Upadhyay, a water policy expert who is currently a research associate in Oslo Metropolitan University’s Riverine Rights project.

Upadhyay, who is from Uttarakhand and lives in the region, said unabated large-scale infrastructure projects as well as uncontrolled tourist influx have also contributed to land subsidence.

“The landslides of Joshimath are formed from landslide debris. This means there is a limit to how much the city can be burdened by buildings or disturbed by activities such as the construction of large infrastructure projects such as dams and roads.”

A study by the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority has warned that construction by removing boulders and blasting the hillside will cause serious environmental damage.

In May last year, Meera Rawat, a resident, was startled while cooking in the kitchen when she heard the gurgling sound of water flowing under the floor.

“That day I realized that something bad was going to happen in our town Joshimath. In September I saw a small crack in the floor. In December, it expanded and we left the house,” said Meera.

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Associated Press writer Sibi Arasu in Bengaluru, India contributed to this report.

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