The hotel owner, the shopkeeper, the laundry owner, the roadside vendor… Hundreds of people watch in dismay as rapidly deepening cracks write the epitaph of their businesses and homes in a sinking town that was bustling till just a few weeks ago.
Their dreams for the future shattered, small businesspersons in the Himalayan town of Joshimath wonder how their lives could have been upended so completely — and so fast.
Suraj Kapruwan, a hotel management graduate who left his well-paying job in Mumbai and returned to Joshimath a few years ago to set up a laundry business, remembers the exact moment his plans for the future crumbled.
It was January 2 when land subsidence led to hairline wall fissures widening with a distant rumbling noise heard in some places, leading to gaping cracks in houses, streets and other establishments of the town of nearly 23,000 people.
“The disaster shattered my dreams. Tourists have stopped coming here, and bookings have been cancelled. I had to let go of my staff of nine people,” an emotional Kuprawan told PTI.
He set up a laundry to cash in on the booming tourist business of the town, which acts as a gateway to several Himalayan mountain climbing expeditions, trekking trails, and pilgrim centres such as Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib, and also the Valley of Flowers, a UNESCO world heritage site.
“We are mountain people. In the absence of opportunities, many people leave Joshimath for the plains. I thought if I come back, I might be able to help a few more people to stay back and work towards the upliftment of the town,” he said, ruing perhaps his decision to return home.
The 38-year-old said he spent about Rs 35 lakh to set up his laundry, a major chunk going into buying IFB machines worth Rs 20 lakh.
“The setup has developed a wide crack in its basement and has been included in the danger zone,” said Kapruwan. “Whatever I tried to stitch together in the last few years has been torn to shreds,” he said.
According to Naini Singh Bhandari, chairperson of the Vyapar Mandal Sangh, Joshimath has around 600 business owners, including those who own homestays, hotels, clothing shops and restaurants. Of these, 50 establishments are already in the Red Zone category and off limits.
“These businesses are totally dependent on tourism. We are being told to vacate the damaged shops but where will we go with all the equipment and goods? Overall, business has suffered drastically,” he told PTI.
“We are demanding proper compensation for our goods and a rehabilitation package for traders so they can start their business again… or they should be provided jobs.”
He said many people have taken loans from businesses and relatives for their ventures. “They had to pay huge sums as ‘pagdi’ to start the businesses. What do they do in the face of so much uncertainty?” he asked.
Carefully calibrated plans for the future have collapsed into nothingness, said residents of this picturesque town.
Suraj Singh, who moved to Joshimath from a village about 30 km away so his children could go to a better school, had set up a shop near the Joshimath-Auli ropeway selling trekking shoes, jackets and other equipment to tourists.
But as the land sank, wide cracks appeared near the ropeway to the ski destination, thronged by visitors in this season. Operation of the ropeway was suspended last week when land subsidence aggravated.
“My business depends on the ropeway. My shop, as well as my house, has developed huge fissures and has been marked under a danger zone. I am trying to shift my goods to a safe locality but haven’t been able to find one yet,” Singh told PTI.
Though his family has shifted back to the village, he has to pay off his house loan. “My house was only built in 2016. I have a bank loan on me. It looks like this calamity will only get worse,” Singh said, requesting the government to compensate traders.
Vivek Rawat, the owner of a restaurant near the two hotels dangerously leaning towards each other, said tourists have stopped coming since word spread about the land sinking.
The hotels, Malari Inn and Mount View, have been declared unsafe and are being dismantled. “We were expecting good footfall after the recent snowfall in Auli and higher reaches, but the subsidence event has put a huge dent in our earnings,” Rawat told PTI.
Although his restaurant has not been shut yet, Rawat, a father of a six-year-old, said it will be only a matter of time before that happens. “The cracks are increasing every day. I don’t know when my shop also comes under its grip,” he said.
Business, he added, has fallen to 20 per cent of what it was, and that too in peak tourist season.
After the January 2 subsidence, his house was one of those totally damaged. His family of six have shifted to a shelter home provided by the authorities. “We didn’t bring this upon us. The government allowed the NTPC to dig a tunnel here,” said Vyapar Mandal Sangh’s Bhandari.
Although studies are on to find the reason behind the subsidence, residents and activists here alleged that one of the projects of the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) have contributed to it.
The NTPC, however, has denied any link between the project and Joshimath’s subsidence, saying the tunnel connected to the Tapovan Vishnugad hydroelectric project does not pass under Joshimath.
Chamoli District Magistrate Himanshu Khurana said a resettlement and rehabilitation package for the affected people is being prepared.
Khurana, who has been meeting affected families, said the stakeholders want to be compensated in different ways. “We are in consultation with people and listening to what kind of a rehabilitation package they want from the authorities,” Khurana told PTI.
“We will include the compensation for those who have lost livelihoods in the final rehabilitation package. We are hopeful that there is a consensus soon on that so that we can act on it further,” he added.
The question haunts families in Joshimath, propelled into national headlines after the subsidence came to light.
Kapruwan said they were aware something was wrong ever since the wide cracks started developing in a line around the neighborhood last year but didn’t ever imagine it could lead to crisis such as this.
“Just a few days back I was providing employment to people, but now I will have to find work. To start all over again from zero at this age will be difficult,” he said.
But does he have an option, he wondered.