In A significant breakthrough for rescue efforts in flood-hit Uttarakhand,an alternative road link to the Kedarnath shrines base camp was opened Friday by the Army,enabling the evacuation of thousands of pilgrims stranded in the worst-affected area for days without enough food and water.
But the good news was tempered with bad weather being forecast in the flood-affected region from Sunday night,causing the government to ask rescue teams to go full-throttle with their efforts in the 48 hours before that.
A high-level meeting chaired by the cabinet secretary in Delhi Friday evening asked all agencies involved to pull out all stops and undertake massive rescue operations in the next two days due to the narrow window of 48 hours,sources said.
They also said that the evacuation process was almost over in the other badly-affected places such as Gangotri,Govindghat,Ghagharia,Gaurikund-Karnprayag and Joshimath.
The meteorological department has predicted bad weather from Sunday night. We will have to complete the rescue process in the 48 hours available with us. As many as 54 choppers will begin sorties from Saturday morning and try to complete the rescue process. We will have to overcome all issues, one source said.
The Kedarnath-Gaurikund axis still needed the most attention,the source said. We have been able to airlift 75-80 per cent people who were stranded with no access to food or water. There are others who have been kept in camps with all provisions, the source said.
To expedite rescue operations hampered by communication problems,the state government has been provided 10 satellite phones from the Indian Space Research Organisation.
Earlier on Friday,an alternate route to the Kedar valley – where an estimated 5,000 people are stranded – was established through Tehri,easing the pressure on airlift operations that were the only means to evacuate pilgrims.
Officials said pilgrims stranded in the Kedar valley have started reaching Rishikesh through this route.
Air operations to ferry people stuck in isolated pockets are also being moved from the Jolly Grant airport in Dehradun to an air field in Gauchar in Chamoli district that is closer to the area.
Although military helicopters now take about 25 minutes to reach Gaurikund from Gauchar,only 37 persons could be airlifted in operations in the first half of Friday. It used to take more than one hour for a helicopter to reach Gaurikund via Rudraprayag. Now it is a short trip for helicopters from Gauchar, one Army personnel at Gauchar airport said.
The Army faces problems in airlifting pilgrims from areas located between two mountains. It has now started dropping its men at different points to make new helipads.
People are stranded on roads in the hills. This is difficult terrain near Gaurikund. Roads are narrow with the hill above and the river below. It is not an easy task for rescuers to airlift such people, one officer involved in the rescue operation said.
Big helicopters,he added,were not suitable for such operations. The good news is that the Army has already restored road communication on the Rishikesh-Badrinath highway which had been hit by massive landslides. Several vehicles could be seen on this route carrying pilgrims who were rescued from Badrinath and Hemkund Sahib to Rishikesh.
While resumption of traffic on the Rishikesh-Badrinath route has helped evacuation of pilgrims from the Alaknanda valley,the alternate route between Guptkashi and Rishikesh is a big relief for those who were in the Mandakini valley where the Kedarnath shrine is located.
At Gauchar airport,which is situated about 160 km from Dehradun on the Rishikesh-Badrinath route,the Army has made arrangements for several fuel tankers. This is like a mobile pump for fuel. The helicopters which are in service get fuel at Gauchar itself, a police officer said.
At present,17 helicopters are operating from Gauchar and teams of doctors have been airlifted from Gaurikund to examine survivors.
Witnesses said there are several spots on the Rishikesh-Badrinath route that have been destroyed by the rains and floods,reminding the rescued pilgrims of the magnitude of the disaster. While several shops and buildings located on the bank of Pindar river have collapsed in Karnprayag,the Alaknanda has engulfed the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigams hotel in Birahi near Chamoli.
With the administration still fully focused on rescue operations,locals have begun to protest at several places against what they say is the negligence of the government towards their suffering.
Toll 207,bodies floating in the Ganga
The death toll in the flash floods in Uttarakhand rose to 207 Friday,with officials saying nearly all the victims were believed to be pilgrims who were in and around Kedarnath.
The toll included 15 bodies recovered by the Haridwar district administration from the Ganga,swept down the hills by the flood waters. As many as 334 people were still said to be missing.
Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna,however,told CNN-IBN that more than 550 people had been killed.
We have so far recovered 15 bodies and there are reports about more than 40 bodies floating in the river belt in Haridwar,Rishikesh and its adjoining parts, SSP Haridwar,Rajiv Swaroop,told The Indian Express over the phone.
Policemen equipped with halogen lights and ropes have been deployed at different points along the river to recover the bodies.
Policemen are deployed at Kankhal,Rishikesh,Khanpur,Shyampur and Luxar in my district. The bodies are being kept at Rishikesh Ayurvedic College, he said,adding that policemen were on duty on the river bank around the clock.
Sources said the state government is planning to cremate all bodies lying near the Kedarnath temple. The government is planning to get the bodies photographed. It is tough to even conduct autopsies, a source in the government said.
The state government said the number of injured was 392 and 672 buildings were totally damaged. About 16,000 people were moved to safety in Rudraprayag district.
Nearly 34,000 stranded people were evacuated in operations on a war-footing launched by multiple agencies including the Army,IAF and ITBP since the heavy monsoon rains pounded the state a week ago.
The IAF deployed 13 more aircraft for relief and rescue work,taking the total number of planes in operation to 43.
The aircraft including IAFs heavy-lift Mi-26 helicopters – the worlds largest chopper – for transporting fuel and heavy equipment required by the Border Roads Organisation to clear roads closed due to landslides and also set up an airbridge in one affected area to pull out stranded people.
Efforts were also underway to rush food packets amid reports that hundreds of survivors did not get anything to eat for days.
So far,207 people have lost their lives. But the toll may go up as debris in many areas is yet to be cleared,Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said in Delhi.
We have evacuated 34,000 people from various parts of Uttarakhand but 50,000 people are still stranded, he said after a meeting called to review the situation in Uttarakhand. – with PTI inputs