Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami on Friday ordered the evacuation of 600 families in the Joshimath town, where many houses have developed huge cracks, leading to concerns about their stability.

The houses have developed cracks due to land subsidence, or the sinking of the earth’s surface because of geologic or man-induced causes.

Dhami on Friday told reporters that saving lives is the government’s first priority, PTI reported. “Officials have been asked to shift around 600 families living in endangered houses in Joshimath to safe locations,” he said. “We are also working on short and long-term plans to address the situation in Joshimath.”

Located at a height of 6,000 feet in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, Joshimath falls in the high-risk seismic zone V. According to the Chamoli Disaster Management Department, 561 homes in the town have developed cracks as land subsidence continues in the district, reported ANI.

During Friday’s high-level state cabinet meeting, Dhami directed authorities to set up a temporary rehabilitation center, and also directed the administration to find permanent rehabilitation at Pipalkoti and Gauchar towns among other places.

“After receiving detailed reports from Secretary Disaster Management, Garhwal Commissioner and District Magistrate, he [Dhami] also gave instructions for preparation for the facility of air lift,” the chief minister’s office tweeted on Friday.

Dhami also met families affected due to the sinking of the land.

Nine families were displaced on Thursday due to the subsidence, reported ANI. A total of 38 families have been displaced so far. Huge cracks appeared due to water leakage from inside the ground in the Marwadi ward of the town, Joshimath Municipal Chairman Shailendra Pawar told ANI.

Construction work in Joshimath has also been stopped until further orders, Chamoli District Magistrate Himanshu Khurana said.

Meanwhile, residents of the town blocked the highway to the Hindu pilgrimage town of Badrinath to protest the delay in administrative action, reported the news agency. Atul Sati, the convenor of group Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti had claimed that the land was sinking due to the National Thermal Power Corporation’s projects in the area.

The protestors have demanded a halt to the construction of an NTPC tunnel and a bypass road for Badrinath and fixing responsibility for the subsidence on the NTPC’s Tapovan-Vishnugad hydel project.

On Friday, the Centre also formed a panel to study to conduct a rapid study of land subsidence and its impact in Joshimath, reported PTI. The committee will examine the effects of the sinking of land on human settlements, buildings, highways, infrastructure, and riverine systems.

Meanwhile, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said that the situation in Joshimath vindicates his position of taking decisions in favour of ecological protection.

“For 26 months when I was Environment Minister, I grappled with the development-environment issue in Uttarakhand,” Ramesh tweeted. “In a vast majority of cases, I decided in favour of ecological protection. This didn’t win me many friends, but these visuals from Joshimath vindicates my position.”