With weather improving, rescue operations picked up pace in Uttarakhand today as 17 choppers have been flown to evacuate people still stranded at various locations in the hill state.
Rescue teams launched a decisive push to evacuate the remaining 1,000 stranded pilgrims from Badrinath in flood-ravaged Uttarakhand on Friday.
Indian Air Force helicopters began sorties from Dehradun early morning as the rescue operations entered Day 11, which officials indicated could see completion of the "job".
Even as 20 choppers including the IAF's Mi-17s and private ones were pressed into service, fog around the Joshimath airbase put operations on hold.
Officials said an estimated 3,000 people were missing, and efforts have been intensified to trace their whereabouts.
The focus now is on Badrinath Dham area, where majority of the pilgrims are now stranded, they said.
Details and photographs of those missing can be uploaded on the state government website to help authorities in tracking them.
An official estimate said approximately 1,237 persons are now stranded at different places across the state. Till now 1,04,687 persons have been evacuated from different places by road and air.
Army and paramilitary personnel on the ground also redoubled efforts.
Army chief Gen Bikram Singh arrived this morning at Gauchar to review ongoing relief operations and pay tribute to the 20 soldiers killed in a chopper crash near Gaurikund on Tuesday.
Army chief General Bikram Singh reached Dehradun and said, "Weather permitting, we will rescue all today."
The Uttarakhand government also estimates it will take at least three years and more than Rs. 2,000 crore to restore the highways and bridges destroyed in flash floods and landslides.
Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde is also scheduled to arrive in Dehradun to honour the bravehearts who laid down their lives during the rescue operations.
The Uttarakhand government has finally admitted that thousands of people could have been killed in the June 16 disaster that struck the state, where it will take at least three years and more than Rs. 2,000 crore to permanently restore the highways and bridges destroyed in the calamity.
“Although the official death toll is 550, the natural calamity was so massive that thousands of people may have lost their lives,” chief secretary Subhash Kumar said in Dehradun on Thursday.
The admission came amid confusion over the mass cremation of dead pilgrims that began in Kedarnath on Wednesday.
Guard of honour for chopper crash victims
The 20 rescuers who died in the Mi-17V5 chopper crash in Kedarnath valley on Tuesday have been given a guard of honour on Friday.
The bodies of the rescuers were brought to Dehradun on Thursday. A day after the crash, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne had visited Gauchar and met officers and men to boost their morale.
The crash in difficult weather conditions had killed five IAF officials, six Indo-Tibetan Border Police personnel and nine members of the National Disaster Response Force.
Relief and rescue
Helicopters took off to rescue an estimated 1,237 people now stuck at different places in the hill state, with the Harshil sector totally cleared of pilgrims.
All major roads except the Joshimath-Badrinath, Rudraprayag-Gaurikund and Uttarkashi-Gangotri routes have been reopened, raising hopes of speedy evacuation, they said.
Free transport is being arranged for all people till they reach their respective destinations, they said. Special counters have been established in Dehradun, Haridwar, Rishikesh, Haldwani and Kathgodam.
Special coaches are also being attached in different trains to help the pilgrims reach their destinations.
Free access is being arranged for stranded pilgrims at various places where mobile and landline connectivity is available to enable them to contact their relatives.
Efforts have been geared up to ensure that the near and dear ones of those missing or affected, get updated information regarding the situation on the ground, which is being made available on the state government website (www.uk.gov.in).
All District Magistrates have started distributing 'gratuitous relief' to the affected people, besides trying to ensure adequate availability of kerosene and LPG cylinders, official sources said.
Assessment of the damage caused to the public infrastructure is underway, and restoration work is also being taken up on a priority basis.
Mass cremation of bodies in Kedarnath, the worst-affected in flood fury, was on, as authorities were racing against time to minimise risks of epidemic outbreak.
Authorities in Rudraprayag district geared up for a fresh bout of cremations at Kedarnath, where 33 bodies have been consigned to flames in the last two days. Officials fear nearly 200 bodies could be under debris in Kedarnath alone.
The process of performing of last rites of those killed in Kedarnath Valley continued, with about 34 bodies being consigned to flames till now, after completion of formalities like their identification and DNA sampling.
Deputy inspector general of police Sanjay Gunjiyal who was in Kedarnath since Tuesday to supervise the cremations, said in Dehradun that no cremation took place there on Thursday.
But chief secretary Kumar said 40-45 bodies were consigned to the flames at Kedarnath.
Adding to the confusion, the Rudraprayag district information centre further exposed the lack of coordination within the state bureaucracy by saying that 15 bodies had been cremated.
(With HT and PTI inputs)