Joshimath, the sinking town and land mafias

Tehelka Cover Story ‘That sinking feeling’ published in the January issue exposed how authorities had ignored early warning signals precipitating the Joshimath crisis. The preliminary report of them National Remote Sensing Centre of the ISRO shows that the entire Joshimath town which is considered a gateway to shrines in the Himalayas and is of strategic significance since the Army Cantonment here is close to the China border, may sink.  Satellite images by the ISRO show that the Himalayan town sank 5.4 cm in just a fortnight triggered by a possible subsidence event in January 2023 while between April and November 2022, Joshimath had sunk by 8.9 cm while cracks had developed in many households, streets and retaining walls.

Tehelka Special Investigation Team (SIT) probed the matter further as reports were pouring in suggesting that cracks had developed in the Shankaracharya Math.  To coincide with this, Joshimath Bachao
Sangharsh Samiti threatened to intensify its agitation while noted geologist Navin Juyal made his views known that the historic town of Joshimath in Uttarakhand may be washed out if the under-construction
Tapovan-Vishnugad Hydropower and Helang Bypass projects were not shelved. Idea was to expose how illegal and unplanned constructions were still going on in the hill towns of Uttarakhand with the help of
land mafias, who are acting as a go-between for the land owners and the authorities in return for inducements.

Our Cover Story ‘Violations for Cash: Joshimath Crisis and After’ in this issue explains how haphazard construction was still going on in and around Joshimath and for prospective property buyers in the hill
towns of Uttarakhand, getting around the building by-laws is a breeze thanks to some corrupt officials. Real estate agents, recorded on camera, claimed “Just bribe the officials and get all the clearances
for building a resort, a house or any other project”.  Our SIT found that violations are not only confined to this holy town but fear lurks among the residents of the other hill towns like Nainital, Mussoorie,
Karnaprayag, Uttarkashi, Guptkashi and Rishikesh as cracks have started appearing in buildings and roads there too. Nainital, a famous tourist destination in Uttarakhand, is also witnessing a situation
similar to Joshimath because cracks have appeared on the Mall Road too.

As part of the investigations, Tehelka met several real estate agents offering them fictitious deals in lieu of hassle-free approvals for facilitating construction of cottages, resorts and other projects. The agents (recorded on camera) not only assured us that they would get the work done by the LDA but also shared contact numbers of officials who would get our jobs done – including approval of the map plans and
subsequent building inspections in exchange for cash. These agents also assured of an administrative nod for residential construction at a place where high tension power lines were passing above as a quid
pro quo for cash.  The agents disclosed that there were many buildings owned by powerful people and builders from the national capital which had come up without approval from any authority. Is there anyone to watch?