Sinking cities in India fuel debates about development

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meT ELECTRONIC two years since cracks appeared in the walls of the house in which Durga Prasad Saklani lived with his wife and daughters. Since then the 52-year-old man from Sunil, a village near Joshimath in the state of Uttarakhand in the Himalayas, has submitted endless petitions warning that his home is sliding down the mountain. For a long time, Mr Saklani says, “no one cared”.

The government of India wants to develop the remotest corners of the country. Problems around Joshimath emphasize how difficult it is to do that in the Himalayas. The town is a jumping off point for hikers and people going to holy sites at higher altitudes. Its popularity with pilgrims – and the collapse of at least one local temple as a result – makes its route a particular challenge for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which likes to be showing his godliness.

Authorities started paying attention to people like Mr. Saklani earlier this month, when cracks that were already visible around the city began to multiply. Satellite images show the area sank by more than 5cm (2 inches) in 12 days during the new year, after already sinking 9cm between April and November last year. The district halted all construction, declared hundreds of houses unsafe and moved their residents, including Mr Saklani and his family, to temporary accommodation. The five of them now live in one hotel room. The government has given them 150,000 rupees ($1,800) as compensation. Officials are at least taking note now, says Mr Saklani.

The latest collapse at Joshimath may be due to the bursting of a ground water reservoir. The cause is under investigation. But a serious risk of subsidence in the area was recognized in the 1970s, when a government commission decided that the location of Joshimath – built on top of sand and stone deposited by an ancient landslide – made it a bad site. for major development. Melting glaciers have since left behind more solvent material that has pushed up the risks, says Sarswati Prakash Sati, a geologist from Uttarakhand.

Similar issues are affecting nearby towns and cities. But in recent years there has been little opposition to large construction projects designed to attract tourists. “What are scientific research and reports if they are never executed?” ” surprised Mr. Sati.

Many locals blame the latest decline at Joshimath on a road built between Hindu pilgrimage sites and a hydropower project, both of which are supported by the central government. Atul Sati, a local activist, said the government has failed to protect them for years, even after a landslide two years ago that killed 200 people. The head of a local Hindu monastery told reporters that the “intended destruction of the Himalayan region” through development threatened the survival of Joshimath as a religious and cultural center.

The government denies that its development projects are to blame. But he is worried about public opinion. In mid-January the National Disaster Management Authority told officials and scientists in Uttarakhand to stop talking to the media. A study detailing the extent of the spawning has disappeared from the website it published. Some fear that the government plans to paper over the faults.

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