India starts demolishing buildings in a sinking Himalayan town

Residents sit on a protest, in Joshimath

By Saurabh Sharma

LUCKNOW, India (Reuters) - India began demolishing unsafe buildings in a northern Himalayan town where hundreds of structures have developed cracks following an apparent sinking of land, a senior district official said on Thursday.

Two hotels were being "carefully dismantled" under the watch of experts and Indian authorities, the official said, a day after protesters halted the operation demanding better compensation. Residents and experts have also protested power plant construction in the area, which they partly blame for the land sinking.

An initial relief package of 150 thousand Indian rupees ($1,845.40) would be given to the affected families who have to relocate following the demolition of their homes, top district official Himanshu Khurana told Reuters on Thursday, adding that a larger relief package was being prepared.

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

NTPC, India's largest power producer, said this week 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.

More demolitions will follow in the town of Joshimath, where alarm bells started ringing in recent months as more than 700 houses and buildings developed cracks, prompting authorities to rush around 400 people to safe locations.

"The district administration has started dismantling two hotels which developed cracks and were found unsafe to live in," said Khurana.

Initial complaints on town buildings developing cracks came about 14 months ago, said a senior state government official who did not wish to be named speaking about a sensitive matter, and a committee was formed to investigate.

($1 = 81.2830 Indian rupees)

(Writing by Shivam Patel in New Delhi)