Over seven years since unprecedented flash floods hit the Kedarnath valley, killing scores of people and leaving a trail of devastation in the pilgrim town, Uttarakhand government has launched an intensive week-long operation in areas surrounding Kedarnath shrine in Rudraprayag district to recover skeletal remains of those who went missing in the June 2013 disaster. The last such search operation was conducted in 2018.
In team of 60, personnel from the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF), the police and health department, have been dispatched on 10 different routes to search for the skeletal remains, collect DNA samples, shoot video of the exercise and move the remains to Sonprayag for last rites. The personnel from Rudraprayag, Chamoli and Pauri Garhwal districts have prior experience of such search operations.
Why this operation?
The search operation follows a directive from the Nainital High Court on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) file by Delhi-based social activist Ajay Gautam seeking directions to the state for finding missing pilgrims or their bodies and performing last rites of the dead.
“The order from the court on the PIL had come on August 7, 2020. The state itself informed that a committee has been constituted under IG (SDRF) in this regard,” Guatam said. He said skeletons were found in every search operation carried out till 2018. But, no search operations were done in 2019.
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How different it is from past search operations?
According to sources in the government, past search operations were done by bigger teams who had to spend more days on longer routes. In past operations 10-member teams had been engaged who did search on 10 to 12 km routes. But since these were also the routes popular among locals, chances of finding any more skeleton there was remote, an official in Rudraprayag said.
Hence, this time smaller teams have been formed and assigned comparatively smaller routes. But the assignment is tougher as they will have to search on higher places located upto 1-2 km in different directions from the main routes. Teams will have to trek towards these places and return to the main route every evening. “It is being assumed that at the time of floods and heavy rain, people might have taken shelter at higher places-like in caves located there,” an official said.
The routes taken are from Gaurikund to Vasukitaal, Gaurikund to Shree Kedarnath and the nearby areas of the trek route used by pilgrims now, Kaalimath to Rambara via Chaimasi, high altitude areas of Rambara, Junglechatti and Kedarnath base camp, adjoining areas of Kedarnath temple, Gaurikund to Gounmukhda, Kedarnath to Chairbaadi and adjoining areas, Triyuginarayan to Kedarnath via Garunchatti and Gaurikund to Munkatiya.
Three routes of Gaurikund to Vasukitaal, Kaalimath to Rambara via Chaimasi and Gaurikund to Gounmukhda are in dense forest areas and the search teams dispatched there have been provided porters and guides for assistance.
All the teams will navigate the routes using Google Maps. Search teams will also shoot short video clips during the operations.
Past search operations
According to a release from the office of the Inspector General, Garhwal Range, total of 3886 persons were listed as missing after the deluge of June 17, 2013. In various search operations carried out since 2013, 699 bodies have been found — 545 in 2013, 63 in 2014, 3 in 2015, 60 in 2016, 7 in 2017 and 21 in 2018. DNA samples of 18 of them were marched with the samples provided by family members and 11 bodies were identified. Also, 1840 cases were lodged in connection with dead and missing persons. As per the PIL, 3,322 people were missing as of 2019.
On August 4, the Uttarakhand government constituted a high-level multi-institutional Special Expert Committee to suggest appropriate technology/methodology to search for mortal remains of persons who went missing in Kedarnath tragedy in June 2013. It was also submitted that the committee is to submit its report in two months to the state government and actions as suggested would be taken to retrieve the bodies of missing persons.
Set up under the IG SDRF, this committee has representatives from Geological Survey of India, Archaeological Survey of India and Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Dehradun. Scientists, faculty members from these organisatons, institutions in committee are supposed to be qualified, trained and experienced in shallow subsurface investigation to identify buried human remains and retrieving these. IG (SDRF) Sanjay Gunjyal said a meeting of the committee was held recently and technologies that can be used in the search exercise discussed.