Hundreds of grey stacks of cement slabs lay around a village near Joshimath in India’s Himalayan mountain state of Uttarakhand.

Hundreds of grey stacks of cement slabs lay around a village near Joshimath in India’s Himalayan mountain state of Uttarakhand. For months, residents in Joshimath, a holy town burrowed high up in India’s Himalayan mountains, have seen their homes slowly sink. They pleaded for help, but it never arrived. In January, their town made national headlines. Big, deep cracks had emerged in over 860 homes, making them unlivable.

Rajesh Kumar Singh / AP

India’s sinking holy town of Joshimath faces grim future: ‘a time bomb’

It was built on debris left from landslides and earthquakes. Scientists have long warned it can’t withstand the heavy construction being done to boost religious tourism to Hindu and Sikh holy sites.

JOSHIMATH, India — Inside a shrine overlooking snow-capped mountains, Hindu priests heaped spoonfuls of puffed rice and ghee into a crackling fire. They chanted in Sanskrit, hoping their prayers would somehow turn back time and save their holy — and sinking — town.

For months, the approximately 20,000 residents of Joshimath — a town burrowed in the Himalayas and revered by Hindu and Sikh pilgrims — have watched the earth slowly swallow their community.

They pleaded for help that never arrived. In January, their desperate plight made it into the international spotlight.

By then, Joshimath was a disaster zone. Multi-storied hotels slumped to one side. Cracked roads gaped open. More than 860 homes were uninhabitable, splayed by deep fissures that snaked through ceilings, floors and walls.

Instead of saviors, they got bulldozers that razed lopsided swaths of the town.

The holy town was built on piles of debris left behind by years of landslides and earthquakes. Scientists have warned for decades that Joshimath couldn’t withstand the level of heavy construction that recently has been taking place.

“Cracks are widening every day, and people are in fear. We have been saying for years this is not just a disaster but a disaster in the making,” said Atul Sati, an activist with the Save Joshimath Committee. “It’s a time bomb.”

Atul Sati, an activist from the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti — the Save Joshimath Committee.

Atul Sati, an activist from the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti — the Save Joshimath Committee.

Rajesh Kumar Singh / AP

Joshimath’s future is at risk, experts and activists say, in part because of a push backed by the prime minister’s political party to grow religious tourism in Uttarakhand, the holy town’s home state. On top of climate change, extensive construction to accommodate more tourists and accelerate hydropower projects in the region is worsening subsidence — the sinking of land.

Sitting 6,200 feet above sea level, Joshimath is said to have special spiritual powers and believed to be where Hindu guru Adi Shankaracharya found enlightenment in the eighth century before going on to establish four monasteries across India, including one in Joshimath.

Visitors pass through the town on their way to the Sikh shrine Hemkund Sahib and the Hindu temple Badrinath.

The town’s loose topsoil and soft rocks can support only so much. And that limit, according to environmentalist Vimlendu Jha, might already have been breached.

“You can’t just construct anything anywhere just because it is allowed,” Jha said. “In the short term, you might think it’s development. But, in the long term, it is actually devastation.”

At least 240 families have been forced to relocate without knowing whether they would be able to return.

Prabha Sati, who fled Joshimath when her home began to crack and tilt, came back to grab the television, idols of Hindu gods and some shoes before state officials demolished her home.

“We built this house with so much difficulty,” she said, blinking back tears. “Now, I will have to leave everything behind.”

Ignoring experts’ warnings, authorities have kept moving forward with costly projects in the region, including hydropower stations and a highway aimed at boosting religious tourism, a key plank of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

In 2021, Modi promised a prosperous decade for Uttarakhand. It is dotted with holy shrines, and improving the state’s infrastructure has led to a steady rise in pilgrims. Nearly 500,000 passed through Joshimath in 2019, state data shows.

“In the next 10 years, the state will receive more tourists than it did in the last 100 years,” Modi said.

A big tourism draw in Uttarakhand is the Char Dham pilgrimage, one of the toughest in India. The route takes people to four high-altitude Hindu temples. Pilgrims traverse challenging terrain, dropping oxygen levels and harsh weather to reach Badrinath, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Yamunotri temples. Last year, more than 200 of the 250,000 pilgrims died making the journey.

Already underway, the Char Dham infrastructure project aims to make the journey more accessible via an all-weather highway that’s 32 feet wide and 552 miles long as well as a 203-mile railway line that would crisscross the mountains.

But some experts say it will worsen the fragile situation in the upper Himalayas, where several towns are built atop landslide debris.

Environmentalist Ravi Chopra called the project a desecration when he resigned from a court-ordered committee studying its impact. To create such wide roads, engineers would need to smash boulders, cut trees and strip shrubbery, which he said would weaken slopes, making them “more susceptible to natural disasters.”

Urban planning expert Kiran Shinde suggested a pedestrian corridor instead, noting that these places weren’t meant for cars nor for crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

“The highway is the most disastrous thing to happen to the Char Dham,” said Shinde, a professor at Australia’s La Trobe University who has written about religious tourism. “Let people walk.”

In Joshimath’s foothills, construction was paused on a road for the Char Dham project that would ferry tourists faster to the Badrinath temple after cracks emerged in homes.

People living there feared it was too late. A long, jagged crack running across one of the front walls in the famed Adi Shankaracharya monastery had deepened in recent weeks, said Vishnu Priyanand, one of the priests.

“Let places of worship remain as places of worship,” he said. “Don’t make them tourist spots.”

The crisis in Joshimath has reignited questions about whether India’s quest for more hydropower in the mountains to cut its reliance on coal can be achieved sustainably. Uttarakhand, home to more than 30 rivers and surrounded by melting glaciers, has about 100 hydropower projects in varying stages.

In 2021, 200 people died after the Tapovan plant near Joshimath was submerged by severe floods caused in part by fast-shrinking glaciers. More than 6,000 were killed in the state after a devastating cloudburst in 2013.

The heavy construction required for hydropower — which includes blasting boulders, diverting river flows and cutting through forests — in a region vulnerable to climate change could do irreparable damage, according to experts.

It also could displace entire villages, as residents of a hamlet near Joshimath found out.

Haat, along the Alaknanda River, once was a sacred hamlet that traced its origins to the guru Adi Shankaracharya, who is said to have established another temple there in the eighth century. Today, it is a dumping site for waste and a storage pit for construction materials after the village was acquired in 2009 by an energy enterprise to build a hydropower project.

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