The ‘sinking of Joshimath’ leaves thousands homeless in an Indian hill town

Perilous settlements somewhere on the way to Joshimath, Uttarakhand. Image via Flickr by Kumara Sastry. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Joshimath, a hill town in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, India, at an altitude of 6,150 feet (1,875 metres), is facing a potential housing crisis as land subsidence issues are causing cracks in buildings and creating hazardous living conditions, forcing many residents to leave. As of January 17, 2023, over 800 houses have been impacted, and hundreds of residents have been evacuated to relief camps due to the earth shifting, referred to by the locals as the “sinking of Joshimath.”

Social activist Nadeem Naqvi tweeted:

A crisis in the making

A state government report in September 2022 confirmed ground subsidence in certain areas of the downhill slope from Joshimath were causing cracks in buildings and sinking roads. At the end of 2022, the residents had already noticed a crisis in brewing, and the situation kept getting worse in January 2023.

In the first week of January, 600 people were evacuated by the Uttarakhand government after a temple collapsed and other structures were deemed unsafe. While Joshimath was only declared a landslide and subsidence zone by the authorities after the latest developments in January, the town has been in crisis for some time. Land subsidence refers to the gradual settling or sudden sinking of the earth's surface.

The cause of the subsidence is unclear, and multiple factors may be involved, but media reports suggest that neglect by authorities may have exacerbated the situation and that action was not taken promptly enough to prevent it.

Journalist Ismat Ara tweeted:

So far, four town wards out of nine have been deemed uninhabitable, and residents are being relocated to temporary housing such as hotels, hostels, government buildings, and relief centres. The government announced plans to establish temporary rehabilitation centres and provide prefabricated housing for affected families. Some residents have protested and declined to evacuate, alleging that the situation could have been prevented if the authorities had acted more promptly.

Independent media outlet Afternoon Voice tweeted:

Unchecked construction and over-tourism

Joshimath is situated in an earthquake-prone zone. It is a gateway to several Himalayan expeditions and pilgrimages — including the Hindu holy place Badrinath and the Sikh place of worship and pilgrimage site Gurudwara Shri Hemkund Sahib. As the number of people wishing to experience the Himalayas has increased over the years, expeditions have become more common, increasing demands for places to stay. Residents of Joshimath cite a growing number of commercial buildings as one of the reasons behind the present dilemma.

Expat Indian surgeon Bramha Kamal comments on the tweet of journalist Nikita Sareen:

Political research organisation Polstrat tweeted:

As early as 1976, an 18-member government Committee had declared Joshimath as a zone sensitive to seismic activities. Among its recommendations, the committee had made a strong case for heavily regulating construction in the area. However, as per the claims of news outlets and some of the reports, the area witnessed unchecked construction and ignored warnings, adding to the town's already precarious circumstances.

According to experts, the activities on the ground lead to the blockage of drainage systems natural to the ecosystem and lack of proper wastewater disposal, which has also caused the soil underneath to shift, changing structures and increasing instability.

The tragedy in Joshimath has led to demands to declare the Himalayas an eco-sensitive site and monitor anthropogenic activities such as construction.

Journalist Gurbaksh Singh Chahal tweeted:

Whether Joshimath would be forgotten as an isolated case in a few months or this would lead to time-sensitive and long-lasting environmentally friendly measures remains to be seen. In the meantime, the region remains affected, with those fortunate enough to have survived with minimal damages, wondering if they are going to be the next.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.