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Joshimath’s displaced residents await long-term rehabilitation

Joshimath’s rapid sinking event in early January, where hundreds of people had to be evacuated from their homes, highlights the urgency for a long-term rehabilitation plan. The state government has planned some transit shelters until a permanent rehabilitation plan takes shape. Residents of Joshimath demand the inclusion of the locals in policy-making, says Manish Kumar

After retiring from the army, Abbal Singh (65) constructed his dream house in Joshimath. He invested around Rs 80 lakh of his savings in a three-storeyed building situated on the hilly slopes of the town. He planned to stay on one of the floors and give the rest on rent as a holiday home – a way to secure some income in his old age. Now, the rapid cracks developing in Joshimath’s houses, have shattered his plans. In early January this year, following a rapid land subsidence event, nearly 700 homes had, as of January 9, developed major cracks and many families had to be evacuated.

Since then, the cracks in Singh’s house have grown and the local authority has declared it unsafe, indicated by a cross mark painted on his home. On January 17, with a heavy heart, Singh decided to move to Helang, around 15 kilometres from Joshimath where he would stay in a rented accommodation. As he was loading his furniture on a mini truck, many locals gathered outside his house to console him.

“I don’t know whether I will ever return to this place again,” Singh told Mongabay-India. He added that he recently got a call from the State Disaster Management Authority. “The person over the phone asked me whether I was ready to take a one-time settlement amount or would like to wait for permanent resettlement to some other place,” he said. “I am confused as the official did not share the compensation amount if I go for a one-time settlement. On the other hand, there is no clarity on how much time the government will take to give us permanent shelter,” he said.

There are many like him in Joshimath, a town referred to as the ‘gateway to the Himalayas’, who are uncertain about their future as gradual subsidence continues in Joshimath. The town hosts one of the biggest markets, banks, hospitals, and hotels of the Chamoli district in Uttarakhand. It is a hotspot for religious pilgrimage and adventure tourism. Rural populations from nearby areas also depend on the facilities of Joshimath. Many of the people evacuated in the first week of January are currently taking shelter in temporary houses and waiting for the government’s long-term rehabilitation plan.

A house with cracked walls at Joshimath.

According to data from the Chamoli District administration, by January 29, 863 houses/buildings in the nine blocks of Joshimath have developed cracks while 181 buildings have been marked as unsafe. A total of 250 families have now been temporarily displaced in Joshimath and forced to live in relief camps. Many of them have also shifted to their relatives’ houses or moved to live on rent outside the town. Many residents have also been protesting regularly and demanding faster relief.

Like Singh, many Joshimath residents have received calls from the government to seek their views on a permanent solution. “The disaster management department is making repeated calls to the troubled citizens of Joshimath and asking for their views on rehabilitation. They are pressing more on offering a one-time settlement amount (instead of a permanent settlement solution). The National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy of 2007 bats for the early formation of a committee to look into rehabilitation issues and resettle early. There seems to be a delay on the part of the government,” Atul Sati, a member of Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, told Mongabay-India. He added that Section 5 of the policy in particular talks about making an administrator or commissioner for rehabilitation and resettlement who will work expeditiously to assess the losses and make rehabilitation plans, among others.

From interim relief to ad-hoc solution

According to the interim relief package, as announced by the Uttarakhand Cabinet on January 12, the people being resettled from Joshimath are eligible to get Rs 5,000 allowance per month for the next six months if they opt to stay in a rented accommodation. They can also stay in the 44 existing relief camps and are eligible to get Rs 450 per person/day for meals if they want to opt out of the meals at these relief camps. There is also a provision of Rs 1.5 lakh interim relief per displaced family.

Mukesh Kumar, a 57-year-old resident from Joshimath, is one among those who have taken shelter in a relief camp. He is living in Manik Palace Hotel with 13 members of his family. He was seemingly frustrated due to daily struggles in the relief camp when Mongabay-India interacted with him. He said, “I don’t know how long we will have to stay in these temporary arrangements.”

The government marked it unsafe by putting a cross sign on the building.

The state government has planned to give shelter houses for displaced Joshimath residents at four sites – Koti farm (near Auli), horticulture department land in Joshimath, Dhak village and Pipalkoti, confirmed Ranjit Sinha, Secretary of Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority (USDMA). These sites, however, said Sinha, would act as “transition shelters” where the displaced population could stay until a final relief package and policy gets shape. This would be done after the final assessment of the situation and if there is consensus among residents. A new rehabilitation policy, especially for Joshimath, is also likely to be crafted.

“This is a temporary arrangement. For a permanent settlement, there will be a package the government will announce. Those who want a permanent settlement amount and want to take money would get it. Those who want permanent rehabilitation will get houses. For permanent settlement, we are still exploring more lands,” Sinha told Mongabay-India.Kumar, however, is furious on learning that the government’s plan includes another transit point. “We don’t want any transit homes. We would like to get permanent resettlement,” he said.

Abbal Singh and his family pack up their belongings as they move out of Joshimath after their house developed cracks and was marked unsafe by the government.

Atul Sati of Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti said that the government is not showing any urgency regarding proper rehabilitation and it failed to fulfill its old promises too. The way the rehabilitation process is going, it could take more than a decade for the Joshimath residents to get a permanent shelter, he told Mongabay-India.

When asked what kind of permanent rehabilitation could be the best option for Joshimath, Sati said, “We had shared our suggestions with the government officials that they can use four sites – Koti farm, Auli, horticulture department land in Joshimath and the forest land near Joshimath for our permanent rehabilitation. There is no development on that front. At present, most of the plans now are ad-hoc. We had also suggested that a special committee should be made on rehabilitation where the locals should also have representation.”

The locals favour these sites as they have similar features to Joshimath. Most tourists come to Joshimath to either go to Badrinath or Auli. Auli is around 11 km above Joshimath, so every day, several taxis and tourists go to Auli. Many tourists wanting to go to Auli, stay in Joshimath due to cheaper accommodation. A lot of Joshimath residents have their properties in Auli or have relatives there. Given their familiarity with the area, the locals have asked for two sites near Joshimath and two sites near Auli so that the overall post situation remains mostly the same.

According to the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management (USDMA), eight expert committees have been formed to study different aspects of Joshimath and suggest measures. These include institutional panels from the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee (to conduct geotechnical study), National Institute of Hydrology (NIH), Roorkee (hydrological survey), Geological Survey of India (assessment of rehabilitation land), Wadia Institute of Himalayan Ecology (Geological), National Geophysical Research Institute (sub-surface physical mapping).

While the Central Ground Water Board will assess groundwater, the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing will oversee the land movement with satellite images. Along with assessing damage and risk, Central Building Research Institute is playing the role of the nodal committee. They have been given specific deadlines to submit their interim and final reports. These panels will likely come up with their report by the end of March this year.

However, top officials from USDMA admitted that there is no assessment of the people from Joshimath who need permanent rehabilitation, while the land for the same is also yet to be identified. Sinha, secretary of USDMA, also claimed that any decision on the issue would take time and could be made only after receiving all expert committee reports.

“There is no decision on permanent rehabilitation as of now. We are still assessing the damages and the number of people affected who may need permanent resettlement. We cannot make such decisions in haste. After we receive all expert panel reports, do wider consultations with the public and get all assessments, we will announce a special relief package for them. There would be a special rehabilitation policy for Joshimath,” Sinha told Mongabay-India. Till then, these people will stay in the transit shelter, he said. He assured these shelters would provide housing, drinking water, education and healthcare facilities.

(Courtesy: Mongabay India)

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