ISRO forecasts a 5-cm drop in under 12 days as Joshimath continues to grow despite warnings.
A preliminary analysis released on Friday by the Indian Space Research Organisation’s National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) indicated that areas of Joshimath town experienced “rapid sinking.”
Since April 2022, steady sinking of up to 9 centimetres has been documented within the town over a period of seven months. However, Cartosat-2S satellite data gathered by ISRO indicates the area has sunk by approximately 5 centimetres in just 12 days since December 27.
Since a 1976 government report warned against extensive construction in the geologically unstable Joshimath region, which stands on historic landslide debris and moraine above a permanent tectonic plate, multiple alarms have sounded.
However, nothing prevented successive state and federal governments from bringing megaprojects and mass tourism to the region.
In the vicinity of Joshimath, where a hydroelectric project has been excavating a 12-kilometre-long tunnel for nearly a decade, work has also begun on the Chardham road project. Under the ambitious proposal to create a broad gauge connection to Badrinath, Joshimath would have a train station next. Then there is the unplanned growth of the town itself, which has mostly occurred to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims and tourists.
As the transit point for Badrinath, one of India’s most frequented pilgrimage sites, Joshimath has evolved from a tranquil temple village to a bustling tourism hub.
From less than one million in the 1960s and less than five million in the 1990s, the number of yearly tourists to Badrinath rose to ten million in 2012. In 2014, fewer than 2 lakh pilgrims showed up, as a result of the 2013 catastrophe. Since then, the renewed rush has broken new records each year, surpassing 12 million in 2019, until Covid struck in 2020.
In 2022, with restrictions lifted, the annual attendance increased to almost 17 lakh. Last May, the state government upped the daily attendance limit from 15,000 to 16,000 to handle the influx of online temple visitor registrations.
Approximately 30% of Badrinath-bound tourists, or over 5,000 during the peak Yatra season, spend the night at Joshimath. During the winter months, Joshimath accommodates the majority of tourists to Auli; in 2022, it attracted over 4 lakh people.
“There are approximately 200 hotels and homestays in Joshimath and Auli.” Approximately forty percent of them were built or expanded after 2015, prior to the Covid period, according to the district tourism officer of Chamoli, Sobat Singh Rana.
There are around 3,900 residences and 400 business structures in the Joshimath region, which spans 2.5 square kilometres. Only 1,790 pay property taxes.
“The majority of houses in this area were built without authorization. Only those who require bank loans have their proposals approved. We were responsible for clearing housing plans until 2018, when the task was moved to the development authority, a local government official explained.
Since 2018, according to a representative of the development administration, only sixty new homes have been constructed in Joshimath. “The true numbers are significantly greater,” he claimed.
In spite of this, nobody cared to do a carrying capacity study while hotels mushroomed, overburdening the town’s sandy soil and poor drainage and sewage facilities.
It took the current crisis for the state to establish a committee of officials and experts who have proposed a technical study of Joshimath’s carrying capacity by IIT Roorkee and another on the city’s drainage by the National Institute of Hydrology.
A railhead for better access
Rail Vikas Nigam Limited (RVNL) conducted a Reconnaissance Engineering Survey (REC) in 2014-2015 as part of its efforts to construct broad gauge rail connectivity to Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath. The objective was to give pilgrims with year-round access and acquire a military logistics advantage.
The REC suggested two departure locations, one from the present station at Doiwala (Dehradun) and another from the future station in Karnaprayag, and a total route length of 327 kilometres for the Rs 43,292 crore Chardham Rail Connectivity Project. Joshimath, one of the 21 new stations, was suggested as the Badrinath railhead.
The idea is to reach Manneri (131 kilometres) from Doiwala via Uttarkashi, where another line will branch off to reach Palar (22 kilometres) for Yamunotri, in order to join Gangotri. For Kedarnath, the projected 99-kilometer route will connect Karnaprayag to Sonprayag through Saikot, after which a 75-kilometer Y-connection will end at Joshimath for Badrinath.
The Rishikesh-Karnaprayag segment, which is now under construction, is projected to be completed in 2025.
In 2017, RVNL hired the Turkish consultant Yuksel Proje to conduct the Final Location Survey (FLS). Submitted in 2020, the FLS highlighted significant geological obstacles to decrease the project scope to 281 kilometres, with 55 viaducts (total length of 8.4 kilometres) and 52 tunnels (total length of 236.5 kilometres or 84% of the proposed route).
According to reports, the FLS research also noted that Joshimath lacked sufficient acreage for a railway yard and other logistical needs. According to reports, the recommendation is to halt the line 35 kilometres short of Joshimath, near Pipalkoti.
A Yuksel official declined to comment to The Indian Express, citing confidentially.
Ajit Singh Yadav, RVNL’s principal project manager in Rishikesh, stated, “The appropriate authority is investigating all issues cited in the report.”
A bypass to Badrinath
The 6-kilometer Helong-Marwari bypass was designed to alleviate traffic congestion along the winding approach to Joshimath municipality and shorten the travel to Badrinath by 16 kilometres. For nearly a year, the bypass was met with intense local opposition, primarily because of its impact on Joshimath’s economic companies.
However, the proposed bypass will benefit the environment by diverting traffic away from Joshimath’s subsidence zones. The bypass will run along the left bank of the Alaknanda river to the north of the Main Central Thrust, which spans around Helong, and rest on a region of hard, huge rock.
The bypass was granted based on BRO’s assurance that significant geological, geotechnical, and geophysical investigations would be conducted. The project plan also includes relevant hill slope protection measures, such as a 4.99-kilometer retaining wall, a cut-and-fill technique to limit debris formation and the disposal issue, 3.86-kilometer breast walls, etc.
Due to these factors, the Chardham panel of experts appointed by the Supreme Court recommended approval of the bypass with the proviso that, even after its construction, Badrinath’s northbound tourist traffic should continue to pass through Joshimath in order to minimise the impact on the local economy.
A tunnel in construction
The NTPC has spent over a decade constructing a 12-kilometer head race tunnel to transport water from the barrage of the Tapovan-Vishnugad hydroelectric plant to its powerhouse.
As reported by The Indian Express on Monday, official records indicate that since December 2009, there have been a series of “aquifer ingress” incidents along this head race tunnel that runs along the outskirts of the town of Joshimath. These incidents involve the project’s tunnel boring machine (TBM) breaking into the rock that contains groundwater.
According to documents, the TBM became stranded in December 2009 when “huge surges of high-pressure subsurface water including faulted rock material ruptured two crown segments of the segmental lining (of the machine) instantly… with initial flow rates reaching” 700 litres per second.
It required several months to free the TBM, but it became jammed again between February and October 2012. 2019 saw its rescue, refurbishment, and relaunch. However, it could only advance 55 metres before becoming imprisoned once more. The project was affected by the glacier flood in February of 2021. Since then, tunnel construction and the TBM have been stalled.