Protests kept out helicopters,trapped many before disaster

Kedarnath Chopper service seen as hurting interests of owners of mules,car parks.

Written by Sanjay Singh | Rudraprayag | Published:June 23, 2013 4:14 am

As rescue workers raced against time and weather on Saturday to find survivors in the Uttarakhand hills devastated by flash floods,The Sunday Express found out that protests by local residents did not allow helicopters to land in Kedarnath two days before disaster struck.

Official sources said “people with vested interests” fuelled the protests. There was also a strike by mule operators,trapping a large number of pilgrims in the Kedar Valley from where bodies are still being recovered by rescue teams.

More rain is expected Sunday night,and is likely to hamper rescue work. Officials said the death toll stood at 680.

No helicopter could carry pilgrims from Phata and Guptkashi to the Kedarnath shrine on June 14 and June 15 — the flash flood swamped the area on June 16.

Everyday ten private helicopters ferry pilgrims from Phata and Guptkashi to Kedarnath and back. One official said the protests targeted the helicopters and helipad in the name of “environment protection” and since the flights did not operate for two days,there was an unusually large concentration of pilgrims in Kedarnath.

“Those who had been dropped there earlier could not return. Many were in no shape to make the long walk back,” the

official said.

“We could not fly our helicopters on June 15 and June 16 because of the local protest. The weather was not good on June 16 and 17,” said Colonel (retired) Vedram Sharma who helps run a private helicopter service at Phata and Gaurikund helipad.

The helicopter service is one reason why the number of pilgrims to Kedarnath shrine had increased in recent years. A return trip costs Rs 7,700 per person while the mule service costs Rs 2,500. “Mule owners used to charge Rs 1,700 per head for the ride from Gaurikund to the temple. The return journey cost Rs 800,” the official said.

Earlier,the nagar panchayat used to handle the mule service between Gaurikund and Kedarnath. “The government recently engaged the district administration to handle the mule service and ensure cleanliness of the area near the temple,” the official said,adding that mule owners had also gone on strike days before the flash flood.

The helicopter service,sources said,was seen as hurting the economic interests of mule owners and those with contracts for car parking lots in Gaurikund. Availability of helicopters at Guptkashi and Phata had hit the number of pilgrims

arriving in Gaurikund.

An official said many pilgrims also tried to walk from the temple as the helicopter service was not available despite having booked seats in advance. “They were assured that the helicopter service would resume soon and that they would be able to fly back from Kedarnath,” the official said.

According to the official,the state government sent two officials to negotiate with local residents for the resumption of helicopter services. “They had persuaded the locals to let the helicopters land. But that was only on June 16 afternoon. Both the officials were there when the flash floods struck. They are safe,” the official said.

When his comments were sought,the Uttarakhand Principal Secretary (Civil Aviation) Rakesh Sharma said he could not comment on the non-availability of the

helicopter service on those two days. He asked The Sunday Express to check with the district administration.

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