Thatri, Doda district (Jammu and Kashmir): It was 7 pm on 30 January 2023, when Shadin Ahmed was preparing for namaz here in the mountains of this southern district, when he heard his neighbour Tariq Ahmed scream.

Startled, Shahdin Ahmed who was home alone with his 16-year-old differently-abled son, picked him up and ran outside. His neighbour’s house, like his, had been riven by cracks, but otherwise appeared stable.

Over four days, Shahdin had watched as the cracks in his four-story home, built with savings made from two decades of work, widened.  Now, it was falling apart.

 “It was like doomsday,” said Shahdin Ahmed, 41, a labourer. “I thought it would be the last night for me and my family.”

On 27 February, seven weeks after news broke that the town of Joshimath in Uttarakhand was sinking, a 34-year-old neighbourhood in the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) town of Thathri (population: nearly 75,000) experienced its own sinking feeling.

Cracks appeared in at least 23 houses—some eventually fell apart—mosques and a madrasa, the land subsided and officials evacuated 300 local residents and 80 girls from the madrasa.

Some families have moved in with relatives or to their home villages, while others are living in camps at a government higher secondary school, said deputy commissioner Vishesh Paul Mahajan at Doda, the district headquarters.

“Thatri is a grave issue & may trigger a humanitarian crisis if overlooked,” former J&K chief minister Ghulam Nabi Azad tweeted on 6 February.

The similarities with Joshimath, where 860 homes became uninhabitable and around 20,000 residents watched the earth slowly swallow their community, were evident with the mountains being cut open for roads and dams.

J&K lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha said that all those affected had been evacuated and that “there was no need to create hype”. A team of experts from the Geological Survey of India (GSI) visited Thathri to find out what happened.

“Thathri came into the limelight because of Joshimath,” said Babar Ahmed, 24, who has a masters in environmental science and is a local Thathri activist.

Families move out of their collapsing homes during evacuation in Nai Basti, Thathri, in Jammu and Kashmir’s Chenab Valley.

New Habitations, Dams & Roads

A local Thathri official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the town had added on “new habitations” with “little planning or drainage in a geologically insecure mountain area”, with hillsides denuded and made further unstable.

As the name suggests, Nai Basti (new locality) was one of these new habitations, built over the last three decades, locals said. Many migrated here from the Pir Panjal mountains in Kashmir to escape militancy and violence after 1989.

Eight hydropower projects have either been commissioned or are under construction in the Chenab Valley. Seven are in Kishtwar, the neighbouring district of district Doda. These projects, many located near geological fault lines, have been previously criticised, although no causality has yet been established with the situation in Thathri.

In March 2020, similar scenes played out in the village of Chanderkote (population: about 1,500) in the Chenab Valley district of Ramban, 61 km northwest of Thatri.

As the website The Third Pole noted in March 2022, a prominent destabilising factor in the Himalayan region is the proliferation of haphazardly built small towns with fewer than 100,000 people. Roads, too, are being widened throughout the region, from the western to the eastern Himalayas.

“Right now there are several earth-cutting machines that are being used for road widening in the Doda district,” said Babar Ahmed, the activist. “But the government won’t accept this (as a factor in destabilising mountainsides).”

The Costs Of Broken Homes

RJ*, 54, a retired police constable, explained how he, like others, ignored the first cracks that appeared in the first week of February 2023 in the two houses he built in Nai Basti in 2016 and 2020.

“I asked my family members to pack all belongings and leave the houses,” said RJ, who built two homes from his savings and bank loans to accommodate his  family of five. He now lives in nearby rented accommodation, hoping for compensation from the government.

If he does get compensation, RJ said, he would rebuild one of his homes, but not in Nai Basti. No one who fled the crumbling mountain wanted to return.

On the day Tariq Ahmed’s house sank into the ground,  RJ and his family removed their belongings and moved out. “A day later, only debris was left of our two houses,” he said.

“It has been more than a month since the administration promised us compensation, but we have not received a single penny,” said RJ.

Thatri sub divisional magistrate Athar Amin Zargar told Article 14 that a team of geologists who visited the area told officials that the “entire area” of about 8 sq km was sinking.

Yudhvir Singh, PhD, a geologist from Jammu University who is on the team probing the subsidence, told Article 14 that the bedrock on which the mountainside rested had been exposed as the land sank. His team planned, he said, to use ground-penetrating radar to figure out exactly how the mountainside gave way.

A local NGO called Ababeel helps residents of Thathri evacuate their belongings from their crumbling homes in Jammu and Kashmir’s Chenab Valley.

Physical & Social Stresses In The Himalayas

The sinking of Thathri’s Nai Basti is the latest of similar incidents reported from various parts of the Himalayas in five states: including Ramban (J&K), three villages in Himachal Pradesh, eight towns in UttarakhandDarjeeling in West Bengal and Aap Dara in Sikkim, the latest example of human activity exacerbating the geological instability of the world’s highest mountains.

Three Indian geologists in a 2023 paper on the Garhwal Himalayas (where Joshimath is located) said “physical and social stresses” were responsible for 400 deaths from landslide hazards every year.

The physical stresses come from the Himalayas being one of the world’s youngest and most geologically active mountains in an era of climate change, which means more cloudbursts and melting glaciers.

The social stresses come from human activities across the 2,500-km length of the Himalayas, including deforestation and construction on their steep slopes to build homes, highways, dams, tunnels and other construction.

“An obvious solution is to heed scientists’ warnings and quit building dams in regions where unstable mountains and climate change can destroy them, whether by glacial lake outbursts, landslides, or some other mechanism (such as an earthquake),” US science website Cosmos commented in February 2021.

In Thathri, while the exact cause of the land subsidence is unclear, officials blamed unplanned home building, and observers pointed to the possible role of local dams and roads.

“If we look at the recent incident of the Joshimath land sinking, the role of these mega developmental projects can’t be ignored without a proper survey,” said Anmol Ohri, founder of Climate Front, an environmental advocacy based in Jammu.  “As of now, we are all in the dark, without an independent point of view on the subject.”

Meanwhile, the former residents of Nai Basti, complained that there was no sign of the compensation that the J&K government promised.

No Sign Of Promised Compensation

Experts from the Geological Survey of India study the subsidence of land that destroyed the neighbourhood of Nai Basti in Jammu and Kashmir’s Chenab Valley.

Khalid Najeeb, 21, remembered the cracks appearing “suddenly” on 26 January in their two-storied house in Nai Basti.

That day they began to move their belongings out of the house. Three days later, it had fallen apart as it sank into the earth. “Thank God we had already left the house,” said Najeed.

Najeed, his five sisters and his father, retired police constable Noor Mohammed, now live 3 km away, renting a neighbour’s house there. They hoped, he said, that the government would compensate them for their loss.

SDM Amin said the lieutenant governor had assured those who had lost homes “full compensation”. But when Article 14 checked on 12 March, none of those affected had been contacted by the government.

Najeed said there was no sign of the compensation that the government promised. The government appeared to be waiting for expert opinion.

“I firmly believe in expert opinion,” said lieutenant governor Sinha. “They have collected the samples and the concerned team will submit their final report.”

The expert team was supposed to be submitted to the government on 5 February, but at the time of publishing this story, the report had not been made public.

Former professor and retired director of J&K’s geology department G M Bhat, who visited Nai Basti on 5 February as part of the team probing the event, said the ground on the mountainside was sliding and subsiding, apparently due to the inherent geological fragility of the Himalayas.

Bhat speculated that household waste water seeping into the mountainside had destabilised Nai Basti, which does not have a municipal drainage system.

“This may be one of the main causes of subsidence in Nai Basti,” said Bhat, who is on the team of experts probing the subsidence.

Contacted in March when Article 14 sought comment about what the team found, Bhat said, “I won’t comment further on this.”

Singh, the geologist, cautioned against comparing Nai Basti with Joshimath. The pattern of fractures in some homes, he said, were different from others.  Either way, he warned, if it rained, the Nai Basti mountainside would slip away in a landslide…

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