Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Uttarkhand Devastation: Thousands Dead And Counting...

By Kalpana Sharma / Dehradun

It would be in tens of thousands. The horror stories are flooding in. The Dev Bhoomi where pilgrims pray for moksh is a mass graveyard after the flash floods erupted in Uttarakhand on June 16th. Injured survivors wait to be spotted as the Indian Army rescue mission covering over 40,000sqkm—the largest in history—continues. Dogs and vultures feast on the dead in Rudraprayag. They do not leave the wounded and alive either. Human predators abound: armed men loot survivors.
Krishna Semwal does not know what happened to 10 members of his family. “The locals have seen injured pilgrims limping and losing their way in the hills. They are dehydrated and dogs and vultures are attacking them. Among my missing family members is my 17-year-old cousin. When the floods came, my uncle held his hand tightly. 

But the waters snatched him from the grip,” said Semwal, who comes from Guptkashi. He asked the local administration to use his help. “We usually spend six months in Kedarnath and can help identify bodies. We can tell a local from a pilgrim. We know the routes and paths. But they are not letting us go beyond Phata. I fear they are hiding something disastrous.” Food packets were dropped for around 1,000 pilgrims in Garurchatti; yet around 1,000 at Bhairon Mandir, 2.5-km from Kedarnath Mandir, wait for deliverance.

Kedar Ghati and the entire Rudraprayag region has turned into a ghoulish bed of corpses. On the morning on June 17, when the water of Gandhi Sarovar came gushing down after a cloud burst, many pilgrims were washed away. Others who saw the disaster unfolding in seconds ran up to higher areas. As water and death followed minute-by-minute, they climbed higher and eventually lost their way in the stretches around Rambara, Gaurikund, Guptkashi, Kalimath, Ukhimath, Chandrapuri and other areas.  

When the deluge stopped, they found themselves stranded amidst huge stretches of bare pastures. While the number of marooned pilgrims on June 18 was estimated to be 14000-20,000 in Rudraprayg, Kedarnath alone, sources say at least 6,000 to 7,000 are dead, buried in mud and slush or have starved to death.

A survivor from Kedarnath asks, “Why were satellite phones not given to survivors in Rudraprayag? These could have helped ITBP jawans and Army helicopters trace us. It could help us tell our loved ones we are safe. I believe that the government thought that if we die after informing dear ones, the authorities would be in trouble.”

He added that the survivors are pushing the stinking, decaying corpses into the swelling waters to avoid an epidemic. “We soaked pieces of cloth with rainwater which we drank to avoid dehydration. We had nothing to eat. I met a few survivors from Garuchatti where around a 1,000 pilgrims were stranded, rescue was slow and painful. Few others who were saved from Bhairon Mandir could barely talk or even cry.”

Days after they escaped the tearing floods of Uttarakhand, memories of the deluge still haunt Renukadevi Selvaraj (56) and her family. She travelled with a group of 57 others. “We saw a bus rolling down from a narrow slippery ghat in front of our eyes,” she recounts. On the way to Badrinath, as they walked along a slushy path, a woman was killed, hit by a ‘hillock like boulder.’ Vishwanatha Rao, his wife and their parents saw a landslide wipe out a bridge. 

Rahul Yadav from Sultanpuri, New Delhi left for Sonprayag with friends on June 15. “For two days, we were stuck there without any food to eat. On June 19, we trekked down safely to a village 25-30 km away.”

Till Saturday, the armed forces had brought to safety over 22,000 people, either by foot or by air, and supplied 50,000kg of food packets, medical kits and relief material to over 70,000 stranded. Forty-nine thousand civilians are still stuck. “We have deployed 8,500 soldiers on the ground and will rescue everyone stranded,” promised Central Army Commander Lieutenant General Anil Chait .

With the terrain and a poor government network placing the state administration in no position to even initiate bare minimum relief work, the Centre has nominated Chait as the overall in-charge. The Army has also deployed two JCBs to move fallen earth and create access to remote areas.  Nine helicopters—Cheetah and Dhruv —flown by Army pilots are looking for those alive and stranded in gorges, ravines and riverbeds. Among personnel are 10 teams of troops skilled in mountaineering, which established contact with 1,000 pilgrims in Junglechatti on Saturday.

Charanjit Kaur from Ludhiana was in Hemkunt Sahib. “For two days we had no food and water. The Army gave food, clothes and medical aid. If they had not saved us we would have not been talking to you,” said Kaur.

The Indian Air Force (IAF), which began relief sorties a week ago, deployed a total of 38 helicopters and four planes. It landed the special operations C-130J plane at Dharasu on a compacted runway. It flew in relief material and fuel. The plane brought back rescued pilgrims, who are being treated at Army medical camps in Hindon. “With the kind of devastation we see from the sky, we have been hovering the choppers close to the ground while transferring relief material,” said an IAF officer.

Satman Singh of Dasuya could not stop praising the Army. He says, “We were stuck at Govind Ghat. The jawans made a ropeway and rescued us. It was death and dead bodies all over. We survived on rain water.” Nearly 2,300 pilgrims were evacuated by road after jawans of Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) constructed a temporary bridge across the swollen river.

But some were handicapped not for lack of trying. On the fateful night of June 16, Rakesh Tiwari, SDM, Rudraprayag, was on his way to alert the pilgrims. “The PWD guest house was washed away before my eyes. I saved myself by holding on to the Nandi idol. Only the idol is intact.” says Tiwari, whose both legs are injured, but is still coordinating rescue over the phone. His eight-year-old daughter is stranded in Badrinath. Tiwari adds, “There is no way we could have saved the people. 

There are hills on three sides and the river on the fourth.”  Tewari says that anywhere between 14,000-20,000 are stranded. Ironically Rudraprayag—the worst affected area—is without a District Magistrate. SDM Laxmi Raj Chouhan is overseeing rescue operations in the absence of a DM and an injured SDM.

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