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Sinking towns, crumbling homes show cost of India's infrastructure push in Himalayas

Sinking towns, crumbling homes show cost of India's infrastructure push in Himalayas

Jaswant Singh Butola says he is shocked by the state of his village of Maroda, as he, like hundreds of others around the northern Indian Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, will be forced to abandon his home where his family have lived for generations.

The land around the village of 45 households began subsiding around 18 months ago, Butola said, when work started on a new railway line that the Indian government is building deep into the Himalayas.

“Generations after generations have lived here. And now this is the condition of the village. This is unimaginable,” Butola told Reuters.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government is on an overdrive to bring large-scale infrastructure into the Himalayas, building hydro-power plants, railway lines and highways — including strategically vital roads to support military deployments on the fractious border with China.

But some of these projects, located in unstable mountainsides once covered by glaciers, are unsettling the delicate ecological balance in the Himalayas, triggering landslides, flash floods and now the destruction of settlements.

Sinking towns, crumbling homes show cost of India's infrastructure push in Himalayas

The focus in recent weeks has been on Joshimath, about 100 kilometres (km) north of Maroda, where over 850 buildings have developed cracks and some completely crumbled since early January, forcing more than 900 people out of their homes.

“All their memories are from here. Everyone is leaving. What can we do,” said 68-year-old resident, Ganeshi Rawat, as she was reminiscing about her children growing up in her home that she is now having to leave.

Around the town, the government's largest power producer, the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), did not conduct relevant studies before digging a tunnel for its 520-megawatt hydropower plant, according to two experts involved in the initial planning for the project.

State authorities last year noted that there was also improper drainage throughout Joshimath, which resulted in rainwater and wastewater seeping into the mountain, and cavities forming from the removal of soil.

“We definitely need development, but we need sustainable development,” urged 26-year-old Shubham Rawat who moved back to his hometown to start a business.

The conditions in Joshimath have resulted in over 220 families being shifted to relief camps in the safer areas in the area, the Chamoli District Magistrate told Reuters.

The 120-billion-rupee ($1.48 billion) Char Dham project, one of many helmed by the Modi government to expand Himalayan connectivity, was green-lit by the Supreme Court in December 2021 partly because the wide highways would help the military. Environmental groups had challenged the project in the courts since 2018.

Construction on 83 km of tunnels, part of the 125 km railway project from Rishikesh to Karnaprayag, was

completed on January 7, according to the federal railway ministry, even as reports from the crisis in Joshimath had started making headlines.

Reuters

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