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Joshimath: Preparations Begin To Demolish Two Hotels Amid Protests In Subsidence-hit Uttarakhand

The administration started preparing for the demolition of two precariously standing hotels in subsidence-hit Joshimath in Uttarakhand

Gradual sinking of Joshimath in Chamoli
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The administration started preparing for the demolition of two precariously standing hotels in subsidence-hit Joshimath in Uttarakhand on Tuesday, 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 the human settlements around the structures. The Uttarakhand government had directed the razing of unstable structures on Monday, starting with these two buildings.

State Disaster Relief Force (SDRF) personnel, along with a JCB machine 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 the power lines were cut off.

However, as the administration was about to demolish Malari Inn towards the evening, its owner Thakur Singh laid himself 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 the compensation amount.

"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," Singh said. He demanded an assurance from the administration in writing.

A large number of locals were also protesting, claiming that there was no clarity on how the people whose properties were to be demolished will be compensated.

"Decisions are being taken unilaterally, without taking the locals into confidence," a man who runs a small business in the town and was part of the protests said.

Singh later claimed that 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 had 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 do not 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 parents," he 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.

Singh, along with his family members and sympathisers, is sitting on a dharna around a fire lit on the ground floor of his hotel to protest against any move by the administration to demolish the establishment.

The road in front of the hotel, where barricades were put up by the administration to prevent the movement of people, is deserted with the barricades removed and the JCB machine parked in a corner.

Secretary, Disaster Management, Ranjit Sinha told reporters that the Central Building Research Institute (CBRI), Roorkee has been roped in by the state government for the demolition.

A total of 131 families have so far been shifted to the temporary relief centres, including 37 evacuated on Tuesday, while the number of damaged houses in the town has gone up to 723, according to a bulletin issued by the Disaster Management Authority.

There are 86 houses in the area demarcated as an unsafe zone.

The district administration has put red cross marks on the houses in the sinking town that are unsafe for living.

Locals said vacating their houses and moving to other locations is not an easy option for them.

"We are being asked by the administration to leave our homes where we have been living for decades. Where shall we go with all our belongings, our children and the elderly family members?" asked a resident whose house has been declared as unsafe.

The National Crisis Management Committee (NCMC) reviewed the situation in Joshimath on Tuesday 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 the vulnerable structures safely, an official statement said.

The chief secretary apprised the NCMC that the operation of the Joshimath-Auli ropeway has been discontinued and construction work in and around the Joshimath municipality area has been stopped till further orders.

Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla said a high-level team of home ministry officials, led by the secretary, border management, is currently in Joshimath for an assessment of the situation.

The meeting was attended by the top officials of various departments, members of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee and the scientific secretary to the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), among others.

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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 the dilapidated houses that have developed huge cracks should be razed soon so that they do not cause further damage.

Officials had also said 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, roads and the ground.

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The holy town is the gateway to famous pilgrimage sites, such as 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 its 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 moved by Swami Avimukteshwaranand Saraswati of Joshimath was mentioned before Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice P S Narasimha.

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Badrinath MLA Rajendra Bhandari addressed the people sitting on a dharna at the tehsil office for nearly a week against State-owned power producer National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC).

He said people should unitedly oppose the NTPC's Tapovan-Vishnugad project, alleging that 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 the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti.

The NTPC has rejected claims that the situation in Joshimath is linked to its project.

Yoga guru Ramdev has sent two trucks with relief material, including more than 2,000 blankets, edibles and items of daily use, to Joshimath.

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Uttarakhand Waqf Board Chairman Shadab Shams has 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 the state government are doing everything to ensure the safety of people, and scientists are conducting studies to examine the problem and find a permanent solution, we prayed to the almighty for a miracle to save the sinking town," Shams said.

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