Air Force’s MI-17 helicopter landing at the Harsil Army helipad — the lift-off point for the rescued. (HT Photo/Prasad Nichenametla)
Like every year, this year too, thousands of pilgrims were on their way to the Kedarnath shrine in June. But what followed on the night of June 16, 2013 was horrifying, unfortunate and unprecedented. Several thousands lost their lives, many others were injured and thousands were stranded as floods bearing a deadly arsenal of rocks and other debris swamped them. Fighting all odds and varying degrees of danger, the courageous men from the various forces got going on the relief and rescue operations.
“The first call came on the night of June 16 from the Uttarakhand state authorities when heavy rain was reported in the Kedarnath and Badrinath axis. Our teams moved early in the morning on June 17 and reached Dehradun by road in the evening. During monsoon, our battalions are on high alert,” says Keshav Kumar, deputy commandant (administration), National Disaster Response Force (NDRF).
Initially, the briefing given to the men was for heavy rain resulting in floods and landslides and they were supposed to focus on the rescue operations in the area. “But later, when the magnitude of the disaster was revealed, we were given the Kedarnath axis which includes Kedarnath, Gaurikund, Guptkashi, Sonprayag, Jungle Chatti, Rambada and Bhairav Chatti to operate in,” says Kumar.
Fourteen NDRF teams were put into action for search and rescue operations wef June 17, 2013. The teams were equipped with speedboats, scuba diving sets, cutters, search cameras, etc for this operation. They also had satellite communication besides wireless sets. “I was coordinating the operations under the command of our IG, Sandeep Rai Rathore. Our teams were airlifted from Dehradun to Guptkashi. From Guptkashi our teams were to reach Kedarnath on June 18 but air lifting was not possible then. Our teams negotiated the cliffs facing all odds of weather on foot. At times, we were not in touch with our teams and those moments were very tough. We rescued 9567 persons and retrieved 254 bodies in the operations.
Nine of our gallant officers lost their lives in a helicopter crash in Kedarnath,” he adds.
The deputy commandant has undergone intense and rigorous training in various aspects of disaster management. These include a course in dealing with chemical emergencies from the Institute of Chemical Defence in Beijing that is run by the People’s Liberation Army of China and an advance search and rescue course in collapsed structures from Florida. He is currently pursuing an MBA in disaster management from Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University. “These courses enhance your skills and make you confident. At IPU, I have learnt about the various details about dealing with a disaster situation like the government functionaries involved, the coordinating agencies handling communication etc. Our country is prone to several kinds of natural disasters. We can’t think of putting forces everywhere to deal with those, but we can think of taking steps to involve our communities in the disaster management process,” says Kumar.
Another officer, Pankaj Kavi Dayal, who is a trainer with the Border Security Force, calls this one of the worst catastrophes the country has seen in a long time. “Uttarakhand’s disaster story was not just due to cloudburst and floods, it was also due to a poor disaster management infrastructure and weak high-rise building constructions along the river bed. Large scale deforestation, expansion of hydro-power projects and construction of roads to cope with the lakhs of tourists in the state compounded the scale of the disaster,” says Dayal.
With an aim to provide every kind of assistance to the affected population round-the-clock, 120 men from the BSF also adopted five villages. Talking about handling a disaster situation, Dayal says, “Dealing with the aftermath of a disaster is not just limited to rescue and relief work. It involves rehabilitating people, construction, redevelopment, capacity building and taking steps to restore the lost ecological system whether marine or on land. The MBA programme at IPU which I am currently pursuing has a refined curriculum which addresses all these aspects.”
With several natural and man-made disasters being reported across the country, Dayal says that the focus should not just be on how to handle the situation after a calamity. “Why don’t we think about how to prevent or what to do before a disaster? We need to sensitise and train the communities and the local people too,” he adds.