CLOSE TO 150 people were reported missing with seven bodies recovered, and two hydro power projects and a key bridge severely damaged, by a flood likely set off by a glacial breach that surged through the Rishiganga river in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district Sunday morning, officials said. Among those missing are labourers at the project sites, over 30 staff members and two police personnel, they said.
Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat said over 35 people were trapped in a tunnel blocked by debris at an NTPC project that is under construction in the Tapovan area, five km downstream of Rishiganga.
A joint team of ITBP and the Army are engaged in rescue at the tunnel, sources said. ITBP personnel rescued 12 labourers from another tunnel near Tapovan.
Rawat said that a motorable bridge and four other small bridges were damaged, cutting access by road to over 11 villages in the area. Helicopters of the Army, IAF and private operators have been engaged to ensure supplies to these villages, he said.
According to the Chief Minister, President Ram Nath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah spoke to him about the incident. The Chief Ministers of UP, Gujarat and Bihar have assured help, Rawat said.
Local officials cited preliminary reports to attribute the floods to a “glacier break” near Joshimath in the district. But scientists are ascertaining the possibility of a breach in a glacial lake — a phenomenon known as glacial lake outburst flood — probably caused by an avalanche being the likely reason.
The Rishiganga is an offshoot of Dhauliganga, which is a tributary of the Alaknanda river. “The glacial burst led to the rising of water levels in the river Rishiganga, which washed away the Rishiganga small hydro project of 13.2 MW. The flash flood also affected the downstream hydro project of NTPC at Tapovan on the river Dhauliganga, which is a tributary of the river Alaknanda,” said a statement issued by the National Crisis Management Committee headed by Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba which met Sunday afternoon.
It said there was no danger of downstream flooding and the rise in water level had been contained, as per the information given by the Central Water Commission (CWC).
“There is also no threat to the neighbouring villages. At the same time, the agencies of the Centre and the State were asked to keep a strict vigil on the situation, and a team from DRDO, who monitor avalanches, is being flown in for surveillance and reconnaissance,” the statement said.
The surge comes more than seven years after the state witnessed one of the worst natural disasters in the country when nearly 6,000 people lost their lives to massive floods and landslides triggered by a cloudburst and heavy rainfall.
On Sunday, a State Disaster Response Force official (SDRF) official told The Indian Express that their control room was first alerted around 10.45 am by a local police head constable from Joshimath. The policeman also informed that an avalanche had occurred on Nanda Devi two days ago.
By afternoon, several videos of the surge were posted on social media by eyewitnesses. A Chamoli district official said four bodies were recovered near Raini village, which bore the brunt of the surge.
The official said that about seven villages located on the route to the China border got disconnected from Raini after small bridges in the vicinity got washed away. A bridge built by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) on the Joshimath-Malari highway was also destroyed.
Sources said teams from the ITBP, which has a base at Joshimath about 26 km from Raini, and units of SDRF, have reached the spot. Several teams from the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) stationed in Uttarakhand have left for the spot while more forces were airlifted from Delhi to assist in rescue operations.
Prime Minister Modi posted on Twitter that he was “constantly monitoring the unfortunate situation”. “India stands with Uttarakhand and the nation prays for everyone’s safety there. Have been continuously speaking to senior authorities and getting updates on NDRF deployment, rescue work and relief operations,” he posted.
Home Minister Shah also spoke to NDRF D-G S N Pradhan and ITBP D-G S S Deswal to take stock of the situation. Shah posted on Twitter that officers are “working on war footing to secure people”.
“Whatever damage had to happen has already happened. The situation is under control at the moment. Rescue operations are on,” NDRF chief Pradhan said.
ITBP spokesperson Vivek Pandey said: “As of now, it appears that the worst is over as the flow downstream in the Alaknanda does not appear to be very damaging and is under control. Three teams of ITBP personnel, around 250 men, are engaged in rescue operations at the moment.”
Another ITBP official said that “5-6 huts near Raini village, mostly of labourers working on the power project, were washed away”, and that six goatherds and their animals were among those missing.
Union Home Ministry officials said two teams of NDRF are enroute while three additional teams have been flown in from Hindon. The Army’s Engineering Task Force (ETF), Navy divers, and IAF helicopters are part of the rescue operations.
The state government has announced ex-gratia compensation of Rs 4 lakh each to the families of those killed. The Prime Minister’s Office posted on Twitter that Modi has “approved an ex-gratia of Rs. 2 lakh each from PMNRF for the next of kin of those who have lost their lives” and Rs 50,000 to those seriously injured.
With Amitabh Sinha