Cracked walls, ‘repeat of Joshimath’: Scrapped NTPC project triggers sleepless nights in Uttarkashi homes

Water inflow, decaying steel arches, and loose rocks in abandoned tunnels have experts worried. NTPC says all is well.

WrittenBy:Shivnarayan Rajpurohit
Date:
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Pratima Devi unhooked a yellow sari draping a wall, in one of the five rooms of her house, to reveal a crack four inch wide in the cornice. Though out of sight, it has never been out of her mind – especially when it rains.

“See this,” said the 38-year-old farmer, tracing similar lines on other walls, showing uneven courtyards and warped steps at her house in Bangheli village of Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi district. It’s not just her home; most of the village has similar secrets, loosely covered by old clothes or temporary masonry repairs.

“When NTPC (National Thermal Power Corporation) started tunnel blasting (in the late 2000s), my house used to shake, leading to cracks. It has since been sinking,” complained Devi.

Tunnels were built, roads carved out and jobs created as part of the 600-MW run-of-the river Loharinag Pala hydro power project since 2006 at the Bhagirathi river, the source stream of the Ganga. But the centre decided to scrap the NTPC project over religious and environmental concerns in 2010, after spending more than Rs 700 crore over four years. A web of locked tunnels now lies abandoned, its impact written large over villages in the vicinity.

Newslaundry visited five other villages in Bhatwari block of Uttarkashi which once hummed with engineering activity and found hapless villagers seeking rehabilitation, fearing a repeat of the Joshimath crisis.

In three of these villages – Bangheli, Hurrie and Kujjan – within a 2-km radius of the defunct tunnels, the aftermath of the tunnel blasting was all too visible. However, in three other villages – Barsu, Pala and Kyark – within a 5-km radius, the reasons for people’s misery seemed to be largely natural, with toe erosion slowly pushing homes and buildings towards the edge of the river, and the rainy season leaving villagers sleepless.

All these villages have written to the district administration for rehabilitation. But in the eyes of the authorities, all are safe. Last June, the Bhatwari tehsildar wrote to the district magistrate that the villages had not witnessed any damage since the 2012-13 flash floods and recommended against rehabilitating even the most affected houses.

“If officials think the village is safe, they should spend one night during monsoon. We will prepare food for them and make all other arrangements. Everything will be taken care of,” said Kulveer Singh Chouhan, a farmer in Kyark.

Newslaundry found around 100 houses that appeared unsafe for living – most of them in Kujjan, Barsu, Kyark and Bangheli. This was corroborated by village pradhans and villagers. 

Tunnel troubles

In an email response to Newslaundry, NTPC denied that tunnel blasting had triggered cracks and that there was no risk of caving in or collapsing as tunnels are reinforced by “rock bolts, reinforced shotcrete” and rib arches. The public sector unit claimed that NTPC and Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited conducted joint inspections last September and this March, and “did not find any case of land subsidence in the project area”.

However, a top UJVNL official, who did not want to be named as the project is still with NTPC, said all tunnels are “yet to be secured (with stabilisation measures)”.

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Arun Kumar, a tunnel expert with Theme Engineering Pvt Ltd, underlined that steel ribs, a support mechanism to prevent collapse, are rusty and may decay in some time. “To prevent rust, ribs need to be treated with anti-corrosive measures. Otherwise, these ribs may not hold together for long,” he said, after reviewing pictures clicked by Newslaundry. According to him, ribs alone are no guarantee that rocks won’t cave in and have to be overlaid with concrete. 

Newslaundry visited at least seven tunnels, and found that five were partly or minimally concretised. Two of them near Kujjan and Bangheli seemed reinforced with rock bolts and shotcrete. The Bangheli one was leaking water. Another near Dabrani village, locals claimed, “turns into a lake during monsoon”. 

Other tunnels were intermittently supported by rib structures with rocks hanging from the ceiling. A 13-km headrest tunnel houses a rusty excavator. 

A 2021 report of the Uttarakhand Disaster Management Authority prepared by project geologist Sneha Joshi had pointed to tunnel construction as one of the factors behind land subsidence in Kujjan village. “In the downhill of the village, three tunnels have been built (under the Loharinag Pala project) by the NTPC. Because of this, land subsidence has been caused,” read a portion of the report. 

Joshi, who has inspected around 160 highly-vulnerable villages in Pithoragarh, Rudraprayag, Uttarkashi and Chamoli for rehabilitation, said, “It’s possible that the tunnels may have caused cracks. Uphill drainage water gets stored in these cracks, leading to surface shifting. But these cracks are not big and wide enough to be considered risky.”

However, water expert Himanshu Thakkar told Newslaundry, “Defunct tunnel can definitely create a lot of hazards, risks and disasters. If the area is landslide prone, tunnels won’t stabilise easily. They risk getting collapsed.” 

SK Singhal, professor at IIT-Roorkee with the department of hydro and renewable energy, maintained that incomplete structures, including tunnels, can not acquire their full strength.

Geologist SP Sati, head of department of basic and social science at the College of Forestry, part of the VCSG Uttarakhand University of Horticulture and Forestry, seconded Singhal that the danger of collapsing or caving in will continue to exist in the absence of periodic assessment.

The geology of Uttarkashi does not help either; it falls under the highest earthquake risk category: Zone-5.

‘Main reason is NTPC’

Notwithstanding NTPC’s clarification, villagers in Kujjan, Bangheli and Hurrie unequivocally blame the public sector unit for cracks. 

Hurrie pradhan Anbeer Rawat said, “It’s not safe here. Tunneling blast would shake the whole village. Half of the village is unfit for living. The main reason is NTPC.” 

Bachhendra Singh, a farmer from the same village, pointed to the distended courtyards and cracks on the walls at his house. “I can’t sleep at night if it rains. The house leaks…some officials came around one year ago for inspection. But nothing has happened.”

Around 5 km away in Bangheli, 40-year-old Prakashi Devi said she had to leave her wooden house a decade ago as it leaned sideways due to tunnel blasting. “Though the house is still sturdy, we use it as a cattle shed.” Her family now lives in another house in the same village.

While villagers claimed that deformities are more visible in concrete structures than wooden ones, Bangheli pradhan Praveen Pragyan said that 80 percent of the houses have minor or major cracks. “Of these, around 15 are highly vulnerable. I wrote to the district magistrate in 2019 for rehabilitation.”

Meanwhile, in Kujjan village, residents alleged that the district officials refused to rehabilitate them unless their houses collapse. “We are compelled to live here,” said Surmil Panwar, who noticed cracks in 2010 after building his house in 2007.

Kujjan’s location is another cause for anxiety. The village with over 100 households is situated on a steep incline with two streams flowing on its either side. The 2012 flash floods accentuated the vulnerability of structures. During rains, most of the village migrates uphill or the nearby Natin village.

The Barsu village, meanwhile, is creeping towards the Swari river that drains into the Bhagirathi; the toe erosion triggered by the 2012 flash floods.

Newslaundry counted around 50 houses with wide cracks and unstable beams in the village. 

At a primary school, a teacher was holding a class in the veranda as two classrooms were pockmarked by two huge cracks. A month ago, the education department built a new classroom. “Engineers from the education department recommended dismantling the old classrooms,” said the teacher, who did not wish to be named.

While the school may soon get two more new classrooms, the district administration maintained that Barsu is safe and therefore the village, or even the houses prone to collapse, don’t qualify for rehabilitation.

However, to arrest the village’s gradual slide towards the river, the irrigation department began building a Rs 10-crore flood protection wall one-and-a-half years ago. “Imagine if this amount was spent on the rehabilitation of the village, at least half of it would have benefitted,” said a villager. 

Rajveer Rawat, husband of the village pradhan, said more than a third of the 120 houses are unlivable. “Even doors and windows can’t be closed (as walls are getting deformed).”

The neighbouring village of Pala, meanwhile, has other concerns: water seepage in houses during rains and a boulder atop a mountain that can roll down on houses below. 

Meanwhile, the Kyark village, just like Barsu, is also the victim of the 2012 flash floods. Every monsoon, the Papadghad river, which flows by the village, eats away at the village land. A community centre, partly built, is at the risk of being washed away as the previous deluge partly exposed its foundation. Pradhan Rajveer Singh has written to the district administration for rehabilitation of over 40 families. However, his plea has remained unanswered. 

The village overlooks the Gangotri highway, which is yet to be widened under the Char Dham project. “The village will sink more due to hill cutting for the all-weather road,” said Shobat Singh Rana.

‘NTPC, come back’

Piyoosh Rautela, executive director of  the Uttarakhand State Disaster Management Authority, said there are more than 300 villages that are to be rehabilitated in the state. But these six villages are not part of the rehabilitation list, said Uttarkashi district disaster management officer Devendra Patwal, as “they are safe”. 

NTPC, meanwhile, told Newslaundry that it was not liable for compensation to affected villages as cracks are not due to tunnel blasting. After scrapping the project, the company had received Rs 712 crore from the centre towards expenditure and losses incurred.

With the demands for rehabilitation not making any headway, the affected villagers are batting for backfilling of the tunnels or resumption of the NTPC project. 

However, backfilling is easier said than done as the project has not been decommissioned but “just suspended”, officials said. NTPC said backfilling was never part of its restoration or stabilisation measures.

Two demands

Ramesh Singh Rana of Bangheli said NTPC should either fix the problem or give them jobs. “NTPC promised that it will develop the area and every family will get one job. Due to this, people stopped preparing for exams and studying. Ab hum na ghar ke hain, na ghat ke,” said Rana, whose 2 bighas of agricultural land was acquired by the NTPC.

Uttarakhand is among the top seven states when it comes to joblessness, with the unemployment rate at 2.3 percent against the national average of 7.3, with the development gains largely cornered by the plains. 

“My son is preparing for the post of patwari (local revenue officer). For how long can I afford to pay for his stay in the city when papers get leaked every time?… Not only this, (Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Singh) Dhami gets our kids beaten,” said BJP worker Hikmat Singh Ranola of Hurrie village, referring to the alleged police brutality in February against students protesting exam paper leaks.

And now villagers such as Rana whose agricultural land was acquired by NTPC say muck dumping has made it impossible for them to even farm their land. 

The removal of muck, however, was not part of NTPC’s restoration plan.

When the project was suspended, it was 40 percent complete with the spending at 23 percent of the allocation, according to then environment minister Jairam Ramesh. Its return is challenging. 

Two years after scrapping the project, the central government, on a call from environmentalists and sants, in 2012 declared a 100-km stretch from Gaumukh, the origin of the Bhagirathi, to Uttarkashi an eco-sensitive zone. 

As Suman Singh, whose house in Kujjan is riddled with cracks allegedly due to tunnel blasting, said, “Even if a road is built, the hills suffer.”

Update on March 25: The final section of this story has been temporarily removed for additional reportage.

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