■ CM Bahuguna assures best possible help
■ Army launches Operation Surya Hope
■ Death toll touches 800, 75,000 stranded
■ Massive loss of human life, damage to property
The pre-monsoon incessant rains in the mid-night of June 15/16, nearly two weeks in advance has wrecked havoc on entire Uttarakhand. Better termed it as ‘Himalayan Tsunami’, a spell of deadly cloudburst, flood in Kedar Valley was totally devastating. What made it worse was the human toll it took in the form of pilgrims and tourists who flock the hill State in the summer months of May/June for
Char Dham Yatra before the rains arrive in July. The incessant rains coupled with cloud burst wrecked havoc in the higher parts of Uttarakhand in mid-June. Disaster struck on the night of June 16, 2013 when a confluence of two weather systems – one of the north westerlies collided with moisture-laden monsoon winds over Uttarakhand and led to a series of cloud bursts which made Himalayan rivers like Mandakini, Alaknanda, and Bhagirathi and its tributaries overflow and destroy anything in their path. The fury of nature has been nothing short of a catastrophe with hundreds of pilgrims along with locals reportedly killed and subsequently number of tourists went missing. Thousands of people were stranded in the “Abode of Gods”, Uttarakhand and were crying for help, from the first days of calamity. The pilgrims were stranded on hilltops in difficult terrain amid rain and the situation made worst as they were struggling for shelter, food or water for days. The lives of thousands of pilgrims and locals would have been saved if the state government had taken measures to install hi-tech equipment for forecast. Heavy showers continued lashing the hilly state, throwing life out of gear in the hill state. The massive loss of human life and damage to property due to the heavy thunders in the higher parts of Uttarakhand are reportedly owing to the unfortunate coincidence that the early monsoon burst came during the peak pilgrimage season, flooding the Himalayan rivers and its tributaries along a key pilgrim route in Haridwar, Chamoli, Uttarkashi and Rudraprayag district of the state. Following the natural disaster that rocked the entire state, especially Rudraprayag, Chamoli and Uttarkashi districts of Garhwal division of Uttarakhand, the Char Dham Yatra came to standstill. Among all the four major shrines, Kedarnath shrine in Rudraprayag district was badly damaged. Leaving the main temple, most of the concrete structures surrounding temple were washed away with mudslides. A large number of structures including shrines, hotels, government establishments, rest-houses, commercial and residential buildings collapsed like a pack of cards in Rudraparayag district, which is among the worst affected district, that faced the brunt of natural calamities. The state government figures highlighted that 97,000 pilgrims were successfully rescued from the disaster hit areas of the state. Similarly, State Government reports say that 11,000 pilgrims were air-lifted to the safer place. More than 800 pilgrims including locals died and 75,000 pilgrims visiting the Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri shrines were stranded in Rudraprayag, Chamoli and Uttarkashi districts as unprecedented rains wreaked havoc on Uttarakhand. It is worth mentioning that natural calamities strike Uttarakhand on regular intervals. Be it landslide in Neelkanth in 1990 or Uttarkashi tremor in 1991, thousands of pilgrims had lost their lives but the state government has not taken any step for disaster management.
Multiple agencies undertaking relief and rescue operations are increasingly getting worried about the imminent spread of diseases and the rotting of bodies in the temple town area as the tragedy is ten days old now. Nearly after a gap of week, the monsoon fury again continued to wreak havoc on Uttarakhand with flash floods, landslips and cloudbursts claiming 44 lives and leaving 61,890 Char-Dham pilgrims stranded in Chamoli, Rudraprayag, and Uttarkashi districts. Official figures say that 39 bridges have collapsed including 13 bridges in Chamoli, 18 in Uttarkashi and 10 in Pithoragarh districts. The situation is so severe that though 10,000 food packets along with glucose sachets and potable water bottles were sent to disaster struck areas in Chamoli, Rudraprayag, and Uttarkashi districts, the choppers were unable to drop the food to the required places as most of the food packets fell into the ferociously flowing flooded rivers. Rescue operations by air and road in flood-ravaged Uttarakhand were hampered by fresh rains. Meanwhile, the rescue team recovered 127 more bodies from Kedarnath shrine. The entire region has severely undergone destruction to the extent that the rescue team is unable to spot the place from the helicopter. The government has not been able to calculate exact figures on the number of deaths, injuries, and missing persons yet due to the lack of connectivity with the disaster-hit areas.
Uttarakhand Chief Secretary Subhash Kumar said that rescue operations are in full swing for saving the lives of thousands of pilgrims along Char Dham Yatra route. Despite the fact that 10 days have passed, the government machinery will take another three to four days to rescue the stranded pilgrims. “ Due to the collapsed bridges, 5,000 people are stranded in Ghagaria in Chamoli district. The road to Kedarnath is virtually non-existent in the stretch between Rudraprayag and Gaurikund, while the road leading to Badrinath is badly damaged between Govindghat and Badrinath,” he said. According to him, it would take anything between three to four months to restore these roads, making rescue operations entirely dependent on air evacuation. Kumar said that more than 48 choppers including MI-17 and ALH are in service for air-lifting the stranded pilgrims. “ Around 4,500 four-wheelers have been arranged by the state government to ferry stranded victims along Char Dham Yatra route and financial assistance has been also provided to them. Keeping in view of calamity wrecked havoc on Uttarakhand, Congress-led state government has announced three-day of state mourning after four days of calamity and also announced to suspend the annual Kailash Mansarovar pilgrimage.
State Meteorological Centre Director, Anand Sharma, said that the situation started improving from Tuesday afternoon. There will be moderate rainfall at a few places for the next 48 hours. The water level too has started reducing. It will soon be below the danger level. Fresh bout of cloudbursts and landslides has proved deterrent in rescue operations as 8,000 people are still stuck in Badrinath and Harsil area. The rescue operations remains to be the biggest challenge during the next 24 hours as more rains are expected as the day pass by.
The army is re-constructing the bridges and roads for resuming the vehicular flow of traffic in the third phase of Operation Surya Hope, which was immediately launched after the calamity in the state. After considering the intensity of calamity, para-troopers have been called on for carrying the rescue operation especially in the badly hit disaster areas of the state. Apart from rescuing the stranded pilgrims, the army is also providing food, shelter and medical-aid to the victims. The
situation in the higher parts of the state has been deteriorating with each passing day as 1,400 people are still awaiting evacuation at Harsil, 68 at Dharali and 60 at Jhala on Uttarkashi axis and approx 5,000 at Badrinath. In the Kedarnath sector, Army special troops with mountaineering skills continued search and rescue operations to link up with stranded people, if any, between Junglecatti and Ramabada. The heli-bridge and Burma bridge are being used to rescue the pilgrims. Army teams carried out extensive search operations and identified segments of road affected by landslides and developed crossing capability.
While heart wrenching stories come from the survivors who saw this fury of nature unfold, many even lost their loved ones. Stories of shock and trauma, pictures of the devastation of the Kedarnath temple and valley stunned millions across India. People blame nature, encroachments on riverbeds, dams etc. There was horror and disbelief in the eyes of those who were rescued from the flood-ravaged areas of Uttarakhand. While some thanked God, others are too numb to react, having seen the havoc perpetuated by the nature. One of the pilgrims, 57-year- old from Madya Pradesh, Shiv Kumar Srivastava who lost his mother and son but himself survived the ordeal along with others members of family thanked god but pointed out government’s failures in the need of the hour.
“Man-made construction in the eco-sensitive zones of Uttarakhand has exaggerated the damaged caused by natural calamities,” said Padma Shri recipient and founder of Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation (HESCO). He said that numerous construction could be easily noticeable on the banks of Himalayan rivers and unscientific construction has exaggerated the situation in the mountainous terrains of Uttarakhand. The Char Dham Yatra, considered mainstay of the Garhwal’s economy, remains suspended temporarily for the last 10 days in the wake of the natural disaster, considered the worst in the century. An estimated 23-24 lakh pilgrims come to Chardham Yatra every year and disaster has wreaked havoc on the tourism sector also.
After visiting the disaster-hit areas of Uttarakhand, Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna assured them that they would be rescued at the earliest. He also expressed grief at the loss of lives in the calamity describing it as a “huge” one and claimed that rescue operations were going on a war-footing with the help of NDRF, ITBP, BSF and the Army but bad weather was proving a hindrance.
By D P Joshi from Dehradun