Amid fears of epidemic outbreak, the mass cremation process in Kedarnath, worst-hit in the Uttarakhand flash floods, was expedited, even as air operations to evacuate stranded people from Badrinath was on Thursday halted with the weather packing up.
"A total of 18 bodies have been cremated so far in Kedarnath. The next round of cremation will start only after formalities like identification, DNA sample preservation, post mortem of the bodies are completed," DIG Sanjay Gunjyal, under whose supervision the exercise is taking place, said.
A second team of doctors, forensic experts and police personnel has left for Kedarnath to complete the formalities, he said.
The rescue operations and the mass cremation process have been affected because of bad weather, the DIG said, adding that the formalities for the cremation of the victims were also taking time. The cremation exercise had resumed on Wednesday after it was suspended because of inclement weather.
The health department has warned people in adjoining areas not to consume river water as it may be highly polluted. With the air thick with foul smell of decaying bodies in the area adjoining the Kedarnath shrine, the department has expressed apprehensions about spread of various infectious diseases.
"We are now quickly cremating the bodies which have been recovered. But given the scale and nature of the tragedy, there is a likelihood that many bodies could still be lying in open spots, where rescue personnel have not been able to find or reach them," Ravikanth Raman, nodal officer of rescue operations in Guptkashi, said.
Meanwhile, 208 people have so far been evacuated from the Harsil sector but 600 more are still stranded.
"We were able to pull out 1,341 people from various sectors. From Badrinath, which is a key focus area, we could only pull out 350 because the weather gave an hour's opportunity, and we made use of that. The Harsil operation is likely to finish today," Air Commodore Rajesh Issar said in Dehradun.
As many as 14 choppers were being kept ready to fly to Badrinath to evacuate pilgrims, another IAF officer said. "The moment the weather clears up, (we) will resume the operations for Badrinath Dham," he said.
With more than 3,000 people still stranded in Harsil and Badrinath, rescue operations were going on amid intermittent rains, which were affecting evacuation efforts at places including Dehradun and Chamoli district, where Badrinath shrine is located, official sources said.
According to official figures, so far 822 people have lost their lives in the Uttarakhand disaster. The figure includes over 260 bodies found in Kedarnath area.
Officials said relief material was also being flown in more than 40 choppers for distribution in villages where shortage of foodgrains has been reported.
There have been reports of people facing shortage of foodgrains, electricity and water in affected villages, adding to the problems of authorities, which are still grappling with the evacuation exercise.
A report from Rishikesh said angry kin of people from Rajasthan, who went missing after the calamity, burnt a banner put up by the state government at its relief camp near the bus stand in the city and clashed with media personnel.
They were protesting against absence of information about their missing relatives from the officials deputed for the purpose.
Rescue operations were hampered at Sahastradhara helipad in Dehradun this morning due to rains, but resumed as the weather cleared up later, with three choppers flying to the affected areas.
Brigadier Uma Maheshwari said the two hubs, where people were waiting to be evacuated were Badrinath and the Harsil-Gangotri axis.
"If the helicopter evacuation continues, Harsil operation will be completed by the afternoon. That is, provided, the weather permits the choppers to fly," the officer said.
Maheshwari said 500 people had left Badrinath by foot and they were on route to Joshimath, and about 220 had crossed to Gobind Ghat, while the Hemkund axis was all clear.
"The total distance from Badrinath to Joshimath is 43 kilometres, and out of this distance, the pilgrims have to walk only for 12 kilometres. For the rest of the distance, they will be moved by vehicles," the officer said, adding that the Army was giving confidence and motivation to the people to undertake the land route.
Maheshwari said Army and civil aviation choppers had evacuated more than 100 people from isolated places in Uttarakhand since this morning.