Natural Disasters

Joshimath’s sinking brings Uttarakhand’s rehabilitation policy into sharp focus

Of Uttarakhand’s 484 villages threatened by natural disasters, more than 450 await relocation despite the state’s ambitious rehabilitation policy announced a decade ago

By Trilochan Bhatt, Raju Sajwan
Published: Friday 06 January 2023
Most houses in Uttarakhand's Raini village developed cracks after it experienced two flash flood events in quick succession last year. The residents are now demanding rehabilitation (Photograph: Vikas Choudhary)
Most houses in Uttarakhand's Raini village developed cracks after it experienced two flash flood events in quick succession last year. The residents are now demanding rehabilitation (Photograph: Vikas Choudhary) Most houses in Uttarakhand's Raini village developed cracks after it experienced two flash flood events in quick succession last year. The residents are now demanding rehabilitation (Photograph: Vikas Choudhary)

This story was published in the 16-30 November, 2022 print edition of Down To Earth

This monsoon season, 75-year-old Bachuli Devi lived out of a tent she had put up outside her village, Paingarh, in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, to avoid landslides. The village received its last monsoon shower on October 12. Ten days later, assuming that it was safe, Bachuli Devi returned to her house, which had developed significant cracks on the walls due to frequent landslide events over the past two years.

The same day, her children, who live in different cities, joined her to prepare for a religious event slated for October 30. The clear sky and the family gathering made the house appear as a safe haven, despite the crumbling walls.

But around midnight, parts of the hill came crashing down. A large boulder hit the house, which collapsed, killing Bachuli Devi, her two sons, her daughter-in-law and injuring her 14-year-old grandson.

The tragic death of the family would not have happened had the authorities acted in time. The houses of some 30 of the 80 families in Paingarh, including that of Bachuli Devi, were declared unsafe in 2019 by the local authorities after a sudden increase in landslide events in the village.

Instead of relocating them, which is what the state’s rehabilitation policy suggests, the administration issued tents to the families at the start of the 2021 monsoon and asked them to find a safe place in the vicinity to live through the rainy season.

Some 125 km from Paingarh, in Joshimath town of Chamoli district, Vinita Devi also spent the entire monsoon season in fear. After unseasonal rains in October 2021, the ground under her house started to sink and the walls developed cracks.

This monsoon season, her family shifted to the room with the least cracks for safety. Like her, 24 other families in the city’s Cantonment Bazar say their houses are slowly crumbling.

“The cracks have further widened during this year’s monsoon. We have approached almost all the officials and leaders for our rehabilitation, but nothing has materialised,” says Bhavani Lal, who runs a workshop in the market.

The town is a tourist hotspot and has an army base camp due to its proximity to the China border. Its permanent population is about 20,000 and a similar number of soldiers are stationed at the base camp.

“In November 2021, we had requested the administration to resettle the affected population. When they failed to act, we invited a team of geoscientists to survey the town’s vulnerability and prepare a report,” says Atul Sati, a social worker living in Joshimath.

The expert team found that the slopes around Joshimath are in “very critical condition” and “unstable” and recommended a comprehensive study of the area. Finally, the state government carried out a detailed study and released its report in September 2022. Highlighting the crisis, the government report says developmental activities must be stopped immediately in the town.

Alarming rise

In 2011, Uttarakhand became the first Indian state to roll out a policy to identify villages at risk of natural disasters and relocate them to safer locations. Ever since, the list of vulnerable villages has been rapidly increasing, but the pace of rehabilitation has remained dismal.

The Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority said in a June 7, 2021 release that 465 villages across the state had families that needed to be relocated. A year-and-a-half later, the number of villages with vulnerable population has increased to 484 villages. Of these, the vulnerable population in only 31 villages have so far been rehabilitated. And even they are not effectively settled.

Following the 1999 Chamoli earthquake, for instance, the government had declared Pang-Muranda village in the district as vulnerable and relocated it further upstream.

Since then, every night the residents queue up near a pipe to fill their buckets. The source of the pipe is inside another village, whose residents shut it in the morning to ensure water for themselves.

Even 20 years after rehabilitation, the only way to reach New Pang-Muranda is to walk on foot for 2 km. Madan Singh Rana, a resident, says authorities cite paucity of land as the reason for not constructing a road or providing a permanent water source.

As a result, only half of the 40 families that were relocated to the new site live there. Five of the families are living in Joshimath on rent and the remaining continue to live in the old village along with the constant threat of a disaster hitting them again.

A similar story of despair exists even in Chameli village in Chamoli, one of the few villages that the state government claims to have successfully relocated under the 2011 policy.

When Down To Earth visited Chameli last year, it found a number of families living in houses that had been deemed unfit because of the surge in tremors following the 2013 Kedarnath flash floods.

Residents say the administration has offered a compensation of Rs 4 lakh to each of the 40 families in the village and asked them to look for land on their own.

This is a clear violation of the rehabilitation policy, which requires the government to identify the relocation site, provide 250 sq m of land for free to each rehabilitated family along with Rs 3 lakh for construction of a house.

The decision to not provide land has meant that while a few well-off families from the village have managed to migrate to nearby commercial centres, the others continue to live in the village under constant fear.

Manoj Rawat, a former Member of the Legislative Assembly of the Kedarnath constituency, says the government does not have enough land for rehabilitation. This is the reason that despite the identification of disaster-prone villages, the rehabilitation work is progressing at a slow pace.

He adds that the compensation amount, which has recently been revised to Rs 4 lakh, is not enough to build a house. Added to that, families are rarely given farmland. So, even after rehabilitation, they remain vulnerable and without a steady source of income.

To address the challenge of land availability, the state government on December 31, 2021, revised the rehabilitation policy to allow the shifting of vulnerable villages to forestland.

It says that wherever necessary, action should be taken to transfer the land of the forest department to rehabilitate displaced families, and the sensitive and unutilised (unsafe) land of the displaced families should be transferred back to the forest department. Apart from this, in the revised policy, instead of Rs 3 lakh, it is now said to give Rs 4 lakh.

Experts warn, though, that this move will not be enough. They say that the entire state is becoming increasingly prone to disasters, and the solution must include ways to curb further degradation of the ecosystems, and better methods to increase the capacity of the people to adapt to the situation.

Who is to blame?

The Himalayas, the youngest mountain range in the world, is naturally primed for calamities. It is susceptible to high erosion, earthquakes, and its rivers cut the rocks deeply. In addition, rainstorms and cloud bursts lash these mountains.

The valleys in the Garhwal Himalayas, drained by the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river systems, are among the most susceptible areas in the mountain range. Yet, Uttarakhand has not hesitated to choke its river basins with hydropower projects and promote extensive construction activities in the region.

Sources: Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority and

The “Uttarakhand Disaster 2013” report by the National Institute of Disaster Management, India’s nodal agency for capacity building, training, research, documentation and policy advocacy on disaster management, identifies dam construction as one of the reasons for increasing flash floods in the region. From 1989 to 1999, just before the state was notified, Uttarakhand recorded four major flash floods that increased to 22 between 2002 and 2012.

The state government, according to Uttam Singh Rawat, former director of the Geological Survey of India, is misleading the public by making excuses for excessive rainfall or weather events. “While on the one hand the development policy of the government is bad, on the other hand there is no thinking towards disaster management,” he says.

Raghu Murtugudde, a climate scientist at the University of Maryland, US, says, “Nature only gives us rain. We convert it into flood by land-use change.”

Explaining the scale of construction works in the state, SP Sati, head, department of basic and social science, College of Forestry, Ranichauri, Tehri Garhwal, says that in 2000, the year Uttarakhand got its statehood, it had a road network of 8,000 km.

Today, the network has increased to 40,000 km. “For every km of road built, 20-60,000 cubic metres of debris are produced. This means about 2 million cubic metres of construction waste have been dumped on the hill slopes in the state since 2000,” he says. These debris have severely harmed the vegetation of the mountains and silted the riverbeds.

Piyoosh Rautela, executive director of the Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre, Uttarakhand, says the discussion needs to move beyond rehabilitation to include ways to build resilience in the vulnerable areas through improved early warning systems, better construction quality among others.

This is important because rehabilitation is easier said than done. “Almost all the rehabilitation cases end up in court as the number of families that demand monetary compensation is always more than the initial number identified immediately after the disaster. Often people who had left the village generations ago return to demand compensation,” he says. Land, being a precious commodity in any hilly state, often derails most rehabilitation efforts, he adds.

Bikram Singh, director of the Meteorological Centre in Dehradun, says while the state already has the weather forecasting technology that can warn people of local events, its coverage needs to be imroved.

Weather forecasting in Uttarakhand is done through satellites and Doppler weather radars (instruments that use electromagnetic energy to find precipitation and determine its location and intensity).

Doppler weather radars can analyse weather activities at the local level, such as possible rain, snow or hail from clouds, forming over any one area. “Uttarakhand has two such radars, one in Mukteshwar, Nainital district and the other in Surkanda, Tehri district. The state needs at least six more radars—in Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri, Dwarahat, Lansdowne and Dehradun,” he says.

Navin Juyal, a geologist who has done in-depth research on the Himalayas, says the state government also needs to take scientific studies more seriously, which clearly spell out the reasons for the current crisis. Only then will the state put an end to its development frenzy.

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