It truly is a Himalayan tragedy, the scale of which is unfolding as rescuers begin to reach areas that had remained inaccessible so far. But as Uttarakhand comes to terms with one calamity, another tragedy seems to be in the making - there are reports of flood victims dying of hunger.
As feared the death toll in the flash floods and landslides that ravaged the Himalayan state on June 16 went up on Friday. Official figures put the dead at 556.
As many as 48 bodies were found floating on the Ganges in Haridwar district.
Survivors are bringing with them tales of horror and desperation. Lalit Pant, a football coach from Meerut who with his family trekked through a dense forest for six days, said there were around 1,000 corpses lying along the jungle route from Kedarnath to Ukhimath. Most of them, he said, had died of hunger and dehydration.
"We too would've met the same fate had we been late even by a few hours in reaching here", the 47-year-old told HT over the phone from Ukhimath in Rudraprayag district.
Pant said he was forced to push 300 corpses into the swollen Mandakini along his route as the bodies had begun to decay and there was a fear of epidemic. As many as 15,000-20,000 people are still stranded in the Kedar valley.
Speaking to HT, SSP Rajeev Swaroop said, "In all about 48 bodies have been traced at different locations in Ganga. We have recovered 15 bodies so far including one of a woman and the process of recovering bodies is still on. These have been kept at Rishikul ayurvedic college morchery. Identification of these bodies is a challenge since they are swollen up, and badly damaged."
Chief minister Vijay Bahuguna, who gave the updated death toll, said 556 bodies were recovered from under the debris. He told CNN-IBN "556 bodies have been recovered and there were reports that more could be buried under the debris."
He also said it would take another 15 days to complete the evacuation, adding "this kind of disaster has never happened in the Himalayan history".
Earlier, the Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde put the official death count at 207 and expressed fears that the figure might go up as the army carried on clearing the debris.
A survivor pleads with a soldier to allow him to board a helicopter Badrinath in Uttarakhand. (Reuters)
So far, the agencies have rescued 34,000 people, Shine said and announced appointment of former Union home secretary VK Duggal as the nodal officer to coordinate relief and rescue operations.
About 50,000-odd people are still trapped, he said. Rescuing them is the biggest challenge in the face of apprehensions that there could be another bout of nonstop rain anytime, sources said.
The number of dead is suspected to be much higher. Locals and those involved in rescue say many thousands of people remain unaccounted for. More than 32,000 people are still stranded.
Thirteen more Indian Air Force helicopters joined the rescue operations on Friday, taking to 43 the number of choppers rescuing people. Ten private helicopters are also in use.
Air Marshal SB Deo, Director General Air (Operations), said in Delhi that they were stepping up rescue and relief operations as there were indications of inclement weather after next 48 hours.
"We have a window of 48 hours to do rescue and relief work," he said.
While admitting that difficult terrain was posing a challenge, the Centre said IAF choppers had conducted 241 sorties so far.
After a briefing by the group of ministers (GoM) in the afternoon, government's chief spokesperson Neelam Kapur held a second briefing in the evening to give an update on rescue operations.
The IAF has moved to forward bases, including Guptkashi and Pitthoragarh, to evacuate stranded people while the Border Roads Organization had also stepped up efforts to restore access to some of the worst-affected regions.
Bodies of flood hit pilgrims lying near Kedarnath shrine after heavy rains in Uttarakhand. (PTI)
The IAF deployed 13 more aircraft for relief and rescue work, taking to 43 the total number of planes in operation.
The aircraft including IAF's heavylift Mi-26 helicopters -- the world's largest chopper -- for transporting fuel and heavy equipment required by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) to clear roads closed due to landslide and also set up an airbridge in one affected area to pull out stranded persons.
View Uttarakhand floods: Five worst hit places in a larger map
(With PTI inputs)