Joshimath: The administration prepared on Tuesday to demolish two precariously standing hotels in subsidence-hit Joshimath in Uttarakhand but faced protests from their owners and locals on the issue of compensation, while more families were evacuated from the danger zone as the number of affected houses rose to over 700.
Hotels Malari Inn and Mount View were leaning towards each other dangerously, posing a threat to human settlements around them and the Uttarakhand government had on Monday directed the razing of unstable structures, starting with these two buildings.
State Disaster Relief Force (SDRF) personnel along with JCBs and workers reached the site and announcements were made through loud hailers asking people to keep their distance from the two hotels. The area was barricaded and power lines in the area were cut off on Tuesday.
However, as the administration was about to demolish Malari Inn towards evening, its owner Thakur Singh lay on the road in front of the hotel in protest.
Hotel owners said they came to know about the state government's decision through newspapers and demanded a one-time settlement of compensation.
"There was no prior notice. If the government demarcated my hotel as unsafe it should have first come up with a one-time settlement plan before deciding to demolish it," said Thakur Singh, owner of Malari Inn. He demanded assurance in writing from the administration.
A large number of locals were also protesting, claiming there was no clarity on how the people whose properties were to be demolished will be compensated.
"Decisions are being taken unilaterally without taking locals into confidence," a resident who runs a small business in town and was part of the protests said.
Thakur Singh later claimed he was sent an estimate of Rs 2.92 crore (worth of loss) and asked by the sub-divisional magistrate to sign it. "How can I sign it? I spent Rs 6-7 crore on upgrading the hotel by 2011. I am with the state government so far as the safety of people is concerned but I don't agree with the amount being offered to me as compensation," he said.
Mount View owner Lalmani Semwal expressed similar sentiments.
"It is like slaying a child one has reared through years of hard work in front of its parent," Semwal said.
"We put all our resources into building this hotel. We paid regular taxes to the government. It said nothing then and now all of a sudden it comes up with a drastic decision like this. Isn't it a violation of human rights?
"If the government has decided, what can we say. But we should be offered a one-time settlement plan in compensation on the lines of Badrinath," Semwal said.
Secretary Disaster Management Ranjit Sinha told reporters that the Central Building Research Institute, Roorkee has been roped in by the state government for the demolition.
As many as 131 families have been shifted to the temporary relief centres so far with 37 more evacuated on Tuesday while the number of damaged houses in the town rose to 723, a Disaster Management Authority bulletin said.
There are 86 houses in the area demarcated as an unsafe zone.
The district administration has put red cross marks on houses in the sinking town that are unsafe for living.
The National Crisis Management Committee (NCMC) on Tuesday reviewed the situation in Joshimath and stressed that the immediate priority should be to ensure the complete and safe evacuation of all residents in the affected zone.
Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba stressed that priority should also be accorded to the demolition of vulnerable structures in a safe manner, an official statement said.
The chief secretary apprised the committee that the operation of the Joshimath-Auli ropeway has been discontinued and construction works in and around the Joshimath municipality area have been stopped till further orders.
Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla said that a high-level team of home ministry officials, led by the secretary, border management, is currently at Joshimath for an assessment of the situation.
The meeting was attended by top officials of various, members of the NDMA, the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, and the Scientific Secretary to the Chairman of the ISRO, among others.
Union Minister of State for Defence Ajay Bhatt visited the subsidence-hit areas of the town and met the affected people. He said the demolition exercise has been undertaken in public interest to secure the lives of people.
Uttarakhand Chief Secretary SS Sandhu had on Monday said that dilapidated houses that have developed huge cracks should be razed soon so that they do not cause further damage.
Officials had also said that the state government was working on a relief package for the people of the disaster-hit town, which would soon be sent to the Centre.
Joshimath has been declared a land subsidence-hit area after huge cracks developed in houses and other structures, roads and ground.
The holy town is the gateway to famous pilgrimage sites like Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib and there has been a demand from some quarters, including the opposition Congress, to declare the crisis a national disaster.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday listed for hearing on January 16 a plea seeking the court's intervention to declare the crisis in Joshimath a national disaster.
Refusing an urgent hearing, the court said there are democratically elected institutions to deal with the situation and all important matters should not come to it.
The plea by Swami Avimukteshwaranand Saraswati of Joshimath was mentioned before Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice P S Narasimha
Badrinath MLA Rajendra Bhandari addressed people sitting on a dharna at the tehsil office for nearly a week against State-owned power producer NTPC.
He said people should unitedly oppose the NTPC's Tapovan-Vishnugad project, alleging it has contributed to the further weakening of Joshimath's already brittle foundations as it is situated on landslide debris.
The dharna is being organised by Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti.
The NTPC has rejected claims that the situation in Joshimath is linked to its project.
Yoga guru Ramdev sent two trucks with relief material to Joshimath. They contained more than 2000 blankets, edibles and items of daily use.
Uttarakhand Waqf Board Chairman Shadab Shams offered a chadar at Piran Kaliyar Sharif, praying for the well-being of the people of Joshimath and the safety of the town.
"While the Centre and state government are doing everything to ensure the safety of people and scientists are conducting studies to examine the problem and find its permanent solution, we prayed to the almighty for a miracle to save the sinking town," Shams said.