However, no preventive action was taken, locals said.
Residents of the "sinking town" Joshimath in Uttarakhand wrote to Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami thrice last month, alerting him about the repercussions of blasts in the tunnels of the NTPC hydel project nearby, letters accessed by NDTV show. The ground shook and initial cracks in houses and roads started appearing due to the blasts from the under-construction project, a few kilometres away from the holy town, in December itself, when panicked residents urged the Chief Minister to take action. However, no preventive action was taken, locals said. NTPC has dismissed any link between its project and the tragedy in Joshimath.
Residents wrote three letters, each with increasing urgency, as cracks grew wider. The situation worsened, and now over 600 families are being evacuated from Joshimath after a temple collapsed, and several houses developed wide cracks.
"We have been requesting the Uttarakhand government and the DM since last year to take note of the blasts at the NTPC tunnels that causes vibrations in the entire area. When our houses started to have initial cracks in December last year, we wrote several letters to the government, but never got any response. The DM visited once, but no action was ever taken to solve the crisis. Now we have reached a point where Joshimath can sink at any point of time," Thakur Singh Rana, a hotelier who has incurred a loss of Rs 7 crore as his hotel building has developed massive cracks and tilted towards a building, said.
Chamoli District Magistrate Himanshu Khurana acknowledged that the residents wrote to him and the Chief Minister, but he "didn't know what to do". He also said NTPC told the administration that they were following all guidelines.
"Yes, residents did write to me and the CM. I visited the area also in December, but honestly didn't know what to do. Because we needed to first ascertain why the cracks are happening. Otherwise, any action we take without knowing the cause might backfire also. That's why I couldn't take any action," Mr Khurana responded.
NTPC has dismissed any link between its project and the land subsidence in Joshimath. In an official statement, it said the NTPC tunnel doesn't go under the town and there's no blasting work being carried out at the site right now. "Tunnel boring machines are being used for construction," it said.
The state government has swung into action, deploying choppers and putting rescue and relief services on top gear as the town, gateway to several religious pilgrimages, threatens to sink. All construction activities in and around Joshimath in the state's Chamoli district, including mega projects like the Chardham all-weather road (Helang- Marwari bypass) and the NTPC's hydel project, have been halted on the demand of residents.
Joshimath is believed to be the winter seat of Lord Badrinath, whose idol is brought down from the main Badrinath temple to Vasudeva temple in Joshimath every winter. It is also the gateway to the Sikh holy shrine Hemkund Sahib.
It falls under one of the country's most seismically active regions -- officially classified as Zone-V (very severe intensity zone).
The Centre has formed an expert panel to conduct a "rapid study" of land subsidence which will look into the effects of the sinking of land on human settlements, buildings, highways, infrastructure, and riverine systems.
Locals say climate change and constant infrastructure development are to blame. Experts argue that a variety of factors -- relating to both human activity and natural -- have led to the subsidence. The factors are not recent, they have built up over a long period of time, director of the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Kalachand Sain, has said.
Joshimath also houses one of the major military bases near India's border with China. The crucial Joshimath-Malari border road in Chamoli district which connects the China border has reportedly developed cracks at several places due to landslides.
The state government has said people whose houses are affected, and have to vacate, will get Rs 4,000 a month as rent for the next six months from the Chief Minister's Relief Fund.