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ITBP DG SS Deswal on Uttarakhand rescue operations: ‘We are hopeful about rescuing 30 trapped in Tapovan tunnel’

With a base at Joshimath, ITBP personnel are leading rescue operations at various locations.

Written by Deeptiman Tiwary | New Delhi |
Updated: February 8, 2021 7:52:15 am
ITBP DG SS Deswal on Uttarakhand rescue operations: ‘We are hopeful about rescuing 30 trapped in Tapovan tunnel’ITBP DG SS Deswal.

Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), which guards the Sino-Indian border, was the first to respond after flash floods hit Chamoli district of Uttarakhand Sunday. With a base at Joshimath, ITBP personnel are leading rescue operations at various locations. ITBP DG S S Deswal speaks to The Indian Express on the situation and the challenges

What is the current situation?

The situation is under control as of now. People were trapped in two tunnels [in Tapovan area]. One of them has been cleared and 12 people trapped there have been rescued. Some of them have injuries and breathing issues. All have been given medical care and shifted to ITBP’s Joshimath hospital where they are stable.

The second tunnel is 2 km away. We have been told that 30-35 workers are trapped there. There is huge debris at the opening of the tunnel. All efforts are being made to remove the debris and rescue the people. Indian Army, ITBP and SDRF personnel are working together in this operation. There are six earth movers and JCBs belonging to Border Roads Organisation which have been pressed into action. But there is a massive amount of slush at the opening of the tunnel and removing it is taking time.

ITBP DG SS Deswal on Uttarakhand rescue operations: ‘We are hopeful about rescuing 30 trapped in Tapovan tunnel’ Rescue operations near Dhauliganga hydropower project, in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, on Sunday. (ANI)

How hopeful are we of rescuing them? Do we have any confirmation if they are alive?

We are hopeful that they may be alive and we will be able to rescue them. It is a long and deep tunnel. So our guess is that there must be enough oxygen in there for the men to last the night. Also, these are tunnel workers, so they are acclimatised not only to working at that height but also less oxygen. Then deep inside the tunnel, they are unlikely to suffer the severely cold weather outside at that height. So circumstances are in our favour.

When did you learn of the incident and how was the rescue operation kickstarted?

Around 11 am, we received information about the incident. We immediately rushed our team from Joshimath to Tapovan which is about 30-35 km away. Most importantly, we have an outpost at Tapovan. So the men stationed there immediately got into rescue work as soon as the floods hit the area. But we needed special equipment and expertise. So a team of over 200 men comprising personnel from our Joshimath base and expert mountaineers from our mountaineering institute at Auli were rushed to the spot. The team reached there by 12.30 pm with special rescue equipment. The DIG of the sector also reached there by afternoon and one IG level officer will reach there tomorrow.

Has there been any damage to ITBP outposts?

Our outposts are safe. But the connectivity to five of our forward outposts beyond the Dhauli Ganga river in the region have been cut off as the bridge over the river has been washed away. There are around 400 men there. But they are well provided for as winter ration was stocked there in advance. If there is any need they can be serviced through helicopters. That bridge will have to be re-erected.

A man being rescued by the ITBP from the Tapovan tunnel after the flash floods. (ITBP)

What have been the challenges of this rescue operation?

Every rescue operation is a challenge. But the tunnel that was cleared today with all trapped workers being rescued required a lot of planning and hard work. First, the spot was not accessible for vehicles. Our men had to rappel down a steep slope of 30 ft to reach there. Then there was so much slush that it took considerable time even to locate the opening of the tunnel. Earth movers could not reach there. But we understood that time is very important and any delay can cause loss of life. So the 15-odd feet of slush had to be removed manually using handheld equipment. It took us 4-5 hours to reach the victims.

At the borders, we engage with the enemy to kill them or die for the nation. But, it’s a special feeling to save lives. When you put in a whole day’s hard work and then a smiling face appears out of the darkness, all the gruelling effort seems worth it.

How has the expertise of ITBP improved since 2013 Uttarakhand floods and how has this experience been different?

We already have regional rescue teams and they are well equipped. We are already stationed in very remote areas in the high reaches of the Himalayas. So we have prepared units to handle such calamities. They have been trained to help and rescue local people. It is our prime responsibility to help locals under all circumstances.

Our postings are in tough and vulnerable terrain of the Himalayas and such tragedies keep happening there on and off. So we have considerable experience now. Last year we carried out the Nanda Devi expedition where 14 bodies of foreign tourists were fished out from under snow and airlifted from a height of 22,000 ft.

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