India to demolish buildings in sinking Himalayan town

LUCKNOW (Reuters) -India will demolish some buildings in a northern Himalayan town near its border with China after evacuating families in the past few days, an official said on Tuesday, as hundreds of homes have developed cracks in an area thronged by pilgrims.

Experts and residents have long warned that large-scale construction in and around the town of Joshimath, including work for power projects by companies such as state-run NTPC, could lead to land subsidence.

Nearly 700 houses in the town in the state of Uttarakhand have developed cracks and some 400 people have been moved to safer locations, authorities say.

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“Six structures from across four wards have been found very unsafe,” top district official Himanshu Khurana told Reuters. “We will demolish some unsafe buildings based on the recommendation and under the guidance of federal experts.”

Two buildings have already been scheduled for demolition, he said, but did not say when.

Earlier, Khurana said work had been suspended on some border road projects as well as NTPC’s Tapovan Vishnugad, a 520-megawatt hydropower plant.

India’s largest power producer, NTPC, says its tunnelling and other work cannot be blamed for the cracks in the town of about 17,000 people, which is a gateway to Hindu and Sikh shrines, besides drawing trekkers in parts of the Himalayas.

“There is no way the project is behind the subsistence,” said a government official, adding that NTPC suspended tunneling work in the area more than two years ago after a boring machine got stuck.

“Blasts in unavoidable circumstances had been carried out miles away from the population and the affected area,” added the official, who sought anonymity in the absence of authorization to speak to media.

The tunnel concerned was a kilometre distant from the affected area and a kilometer underground, the official added.

An NTPC spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, the Supreme Court will hear an appeal that seeks damages for affected residents.

Scientists’ worry over the effect of climate change on the world’s highest mountains was triggered after a 2021 flash flood in the district killed or left missing about 200 people, besides damaging two hydroelectric projects being built.

One of them was the NTPC project.

Joshimath resident Prakash Bhutiyal said cracks had developed in seven of the 11 rooms in a guesthouse he runs that also serves as his home.

The family was waiting to be moved to a safer location, he added.

“Our family of nine has been forced to live in just one room,” said the 50-year-old. “We have kept all our belongings in the open.”

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