The picturesque village of Bastadi in Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district, the centre of the cloudburst that killed nine people and left 16 missing, will never be the same again.
As the survivors move out with their belongings, an 80-metre-wide and 500-metre-long landslide can be seen at the site; as if the mountain was shaved by a mammoth razor.
Incessant rains have hampered rescue and relief efforts in the cloudburst-hit villages in Pithoragarh, where the death toll climbed to 27 with nine more deaths and three more bodies being recovered on Sunday.
State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) officials said around 20 people are still missing, feared dead or buried under the debris, in the worst-affected districts of Pithoragarh and Chamoli.
Bastadi under Didihat tehsil built on a slope of a mountain was relatively prosperous as many villagers have government jobs and also earn a good income from agriculture.
Eyewitnesses say that on July 1 morning after villagers rescued a family from a minor flood and were sitting in their homes, there was a huge explosion accompanied by sparks and fumes. A high wave of water came tumbling down carrying trees and boulders and swept away everything in its path, twisting homes and submerging them under the soil.
Vishnu Dutt Bhatt, a survivor, said that the cloudburst sounded as if a bomb had gone off and a wall of dust could be seen going up in the air. Bhatt said he led rescue officials to the spot where a woman was suspected to be trapped along with her child.
Social activist Himanshu Ojha, who lives in the vicinity, said that he was the first to reach the village after being informed on the phone by the locals. “We assisted in relief work and called the police and personally went to the home of the district magistrate as his phone could not be reached,” Ojha said.
Village head Vijay Pradhan said that he was in Bastadi that day but survived as he lives on the other side. “We shiver with horror recalling the sight,” he said with a fear writ on his face.
Trilochan Bhatt, who lost his brother Girish Bhatt, a class 4 employee at a government school, said that the rescue work was slow. “The bodies are being handed over after a long wait for post-mortem and have started stinking,” he complained.
However, Colonel JS Chaudhary of Assam Regiment’s 8th battalion that is posted in Charma said they were informed about the incident by the DM at 9:30am and they reached after clearing debris throughout the 2-km road to Bastadi at 10:30am.
“We began rescue operations immediately and were able to rescue a woman who is in the hospital now,” Colonel Chaudhary said. He added that another five-six people were also pulled out.
“You see the terrain here, these are narrow paths and it is difficult to bring machines as JCB over here, due to which we are dependent on using spades and shovels,” he said.
He also pointed out that the personnel of Indo Tibetan Border Police, National Disaster response Force (NDRF), State Disaster Response Force and the Indian Army were working in close cooperation at the site and would conduct rescue operations till all the dead bodies are recovered from under the debris.
Col Chaudhary said a man called Deepak Pathak of Ogla village, whose uncle’s body was under the debris, created a little ruckus at the site.
“He alleged that some of the villagers were misleading the army about the points of excavation with an eye on finding their valuable belongings as gold ornaments,” he added.
Pathak, however, denied the charges. “Don’t listen to these elements. We did that only for finding the bodies and not materials,” he said.
Another villager insisted that the team dig at a spot which he said was above the ground floor of a home where at least 10-15 people were sitting sipping tea when the cloudburst occurred.
Rescuers recovered a typewriter from the debris. “This must belong to the master sahib as he was fond of writing,” a villager said.
Officials had to sprinkle chemicals to subdue the smell of rotting flesh at the site.
Some like Vikram Singh Samant of Digra that lies down the same slope were lucky to have survived and thanked god that his village was spared.
“The landslide came scarily close to the edge of our village. We are unable to sleep in the night and since that day fear is stalking us all the time,” he said, wiping his forehead.
Rescue officials continued working at the site with spades and iron cutters in their hand with more hope in their eyes as the smell of rotting flesh intensified.