For months, the roughly 20,000 residents of the holy town of Joshimath, burrowed in the Himalayas and revered by Hindu and Sikh pilgrims, have watched the earth slowly swallow their community. Multistoried hotels slumped to one side; cracked roads gaped open. More than 860 homes were uninhabitable, splayed by deep fissures, the AP reports. Though locals pleaded for help, instead of saviors they got bulldozers that razed swaths of the town built on piles of debris left behind by landslides and earthquakes. Scientists have warned for decades that Joshimath could not withstand the level of heavy construction that has recently been taking place. "It's a time bomb," says Atul Sati, an activist with the Save Joshimath Committee.
Joshimath's future is at risk, experts and activists say, due in part to a push backed by the prime minister's political party to grow religious tourism in Uttarakhand, the holy town's home state. On top of climate change, extensive new construction to accommodate more tourists and accelerate hydropower projects in the region is exacerbating subsidence—the sinking of land. Joshimath is said to have special spiritual powers and believed to be where Hindu guru Adi Shankaracharya found enlightenment in the 8th century before going on to establish four monasteries across India, including one in Joshimath. Visitors pass through the town on their way to the famous Sikh shrine, Hemkund Sahib, and the Hindu temple, Badrinath.
"It must be protected," said Brahmachari Mukundanand, a local priest who called Joshimath the "brain of North India." "If anything happens to our brain, we can't function," he said. The town's loose topsoil and soft rocks can only support so much and that limit, according to environmentalist Vimlendu Jha, may have already been breached. "In the short term, you might think it's development. But in the long term, it is actually devastation," he said. At least 240 families have been forced to relocate without knowing if they would be able to return. Authorities, ignoring expert warnings, have continued to develop costly projects in the region, including a slew of hydropower stations and a lengthy highway. More from the AP here. (Read more India stories.)