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Seventeen days after the Uttarakhand disaster,the mammoth multi-agency rescue operations to evacuate all stranded pilgrims and tourists concluded today with a group of 150 people being taken to safety from Badrinath.
In all,around 1.1 lakh people stranded by flash floods and landslides after monsoon rains pounded the hill state on June 15 were evacuated by thousands of personnel of the Army,IAF,Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF),who braved all odds to pull off one of the biggest rescue operations in the world under the most difficult of circumstances.
The rescue mission was marred by tragedy when an IAF Mi17 V5 chopper carrying 20 personnel and crew crashed killing all on board.
“All the remaining pilgrims stranded in Badrinath dham have been evacuated. Now some locals and Nepali labourers remain there who will be evacuated gradually as the damaged roads are restored,” Chamoli’s District Magistrate S A Murugesan said over phone.
The IAF,which concluded its air sorties,has however stationed 10 choppers in the state for about a week or so for use in any operations,an IAF official said in Delhi.
Though the rescue mission has concluded,authorities faced a daunting task of cremation of badly decomposed bodies in Kedarnath area with bad weather hampering this process for the fourth day.
Another challenge is removing tonnes of debris from the shrine premises in Kedarnath as there are no roads to transport heavy equipment like JCBs there for the purpose,Uttarakhand DGP Satyavrat Bansal said.
Bansal said the process of cremating bodies in Kedarnath could not resume even today.
“A team of health experts and trained police personnel has been despatched to the shrine but the exercise could not begin due to bad weather,” he added.
Bansal admitted that disposal of bodies is an uphill task due to a variety of factors including bad weather and roads that have been washed away.
A total of 36 bodies have so far been disposed of in Kedarnath with 60-65 more lying in full view on the ground yet to be consigned to flames.
Though not specifying a time frame for the exercise,Bansal said there is every indication the process will take long.
Bodies in Kedarnath and adjoining areas like Rambada are stated to be already in an advanced stage of decomposition on the 17th day of the tragedy.
As the remaining pilgrims were taken to Joshimath from Badrinath,Murugesan said,supply of relief to affected villages continues to pose a challenge to the administration with a vast network of roads and bridges still damaged in the area.
The bridge over Alaknanda at Lambagar is badly damaged and will take at least 2 to 3 months to be repaired,he said adding that the BRO is working on it.
Taking relief material to remote villages due to poor connectivity is a major problem,officials said. Though choppers are being used for the purpose,the exercise is confined to just a few areas,they said.
With Gaurikund-Kedar highway still closed,food shortage is rife in at least 170 villages in Kedarghati area in Rudraprayag district. But relief material has been dispatched to Kalimath,Chandrapuri and Sauri areas in the district.
Gangotri highway in Uttarkashi district is blocked at eight points,while Yamunotri highway is closed from Hanumanchatti to Yamunotri making it difficult to take relief material to affected villages.
Meanwhile,NDMA member V K Duggal,tasked by the Centre with overseeing rescue operations in the state,congratulated the agencies involved in the huge exercise for completing it in less than two weeks (it began on June 20) despite odds like inclement weather and tough terrain of the hills.
“I think,it has been one of the largest and toughest exercises ever carried out in the world. All the agencies engaged in the process deserve praise for doing a commendable job. We especially salute the IAF,NDRF and ITBP personnel who did not care for their lives while evacuating survivors to the safety,” he said.
To a question,Duggal said the IAF choppers will remain stationed in Uttarakhand for another 15 days to take relief to inaccessible villages and rescue over 600 locals stranded in Munsyari and Dharchula areas of Pithoragarh district.
About the stalled cremations in Kedarnath,Duggal said the team sent there has the expertise and equipment needed for the purpose and if the weather permits the exercise will begin tomorrow.