The Army battled on Thursday to reach villages and towns cut off by flash floods and landslides in the rain-ravaged Uttarakhand as officials warned at least 1,000 people may have been killed.
Helicopters and close to 10,000 soldiers have been deployed to rescue tourists and pilgrims stranded after floods caused by torrential monsoon rains hit the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand at the weekend.
"Apart from the 12 helicopters already engaged in rescue operations in affected areas, eight more have been roped in for the purpose to step up the process," Meena said.
The army and air force have deployed 45 helicopters seemed woefully inadequate to deal with what state chief minister Vijay Bahuguna described as a disaster of an "unprecedented" magnitude.
On the fifth day after flash floods, cloudbursts and landslides washed away thousands of people, entire villages and at least 90 dharamshalas, Bahuguna, admitted that "the casualties must run into several hundred".
Rescue efforts are being concentrated as of now on Kedarnath shrine and its adjoining areas in Rudraprayag district which has been the worst hit with about 90 dharamshalas in the temple area, where pilgrims were staying. having been swept away by the flood waters, he said.
Two helicopters have flown from Dehradun to evacuate stranded people.
The State Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre has said that casualties in the affected areas may run into thousands with about 90 'dharamashalas' (rest houses for pilgrims) swept away in the flash floods.
However, the toll has been kept officially at 150.
Principal secretary Rakesh Sharma, however, said the figures could be "shockingly huge" and that it was difficult to arrive at a number.
Former BJP chief minister Ramesh Pokhariyal Nishank said, "The government has put the death toll at 100 but thousands may have perished in the worst-hit Kedar valley itself."
Sharma, who is monitoring disaster management at the state headquarters, said, "Since the state is likely to witness another round of bad weather very soon we have little time to evacuate victims." But he expressed confidence that all the stranded victims would be evacuated in the next 48 hours.
But the consensus on the streets here is not so optimistic. "It's a herculean task and next to impossible," is the general sentiment among local residents.
That's because thousands of people are still stranded in inaccessible areas without food or water where roads have either been washed away of blocked by landslides.
India's top disaster management agency, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), does not have a time-frame within which more than 50,000 people can be rescued.
NDMA vice-chairman MS Reddy admitted that there are limitations in carrying out rescue work as there is no paraphernalia for such an effort even in the four main religious places called char dham.
At present rescue efforts are being concentrated in the Kedarnath shrine and adjoining areas in Rudraprayag district which has been the worst hit.
So far, over 15,000 people stranded in Kedarnath and Govindghat on way to Hemkund Sahib have been evacuated to Joshimath relief camps through air and road routes, IG police RS Meena told the media.
More than 22,400 people have so far been rescued, as the military takes advantage of clearer weather, but another 62,000 are still stranded, the home ministry said in a statement.
"Our priority is to take out the children and women first by helicopter," said Ajay Chadha, chief of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police.
"We hope to rescue all the living and then start the scavenging task," Chadha said in New Delhi, referring to the task of finding the dead.
Houses, buildings and vehicles have collapsed or been swept away by overflowing rivers and landslides, while bridges and narrow roads leading to pilgrimage towns have also been destroyed, officials said.
Torrential rains four and a half times as heavy as usual have hit Uttarakhand, known as the "Land of the Gods", where shrines and temples built high in the mountains attract many pilgrims.
"There are some 3,000 of us stuck in Gangotri (a pilgrimage site) for the past few days and there is no food, no drinking water or assurances from the government," a pilgrim, Parwinder Singh, told the media.
"It is very difficult to move from here," he added.
At least 138 people have been killed across Uttarakhand and two neighbouring states also hit by floods and landslides, officials said, but shrine authorities warned the toll was more than 1,000.
"We estimate more than 1,000 people have died as unattended bodies are scattered all around," said Ganesh Godiyal, chairman of a trust in charge of several shrines in the pilgrimage towns of Kedarnath and Badrinath.
A large number of places are still inaccessible due to heavy flooding in Rudraprayag, Chamoli and Uttarkashi districts and it is impossible to ascertain the extent of damage caused by the calamity, the IG said.
Scores of villages remain under water and cannot be tracked.
Hence there is uncertainty about the casualties caused, he said, adding the devastation is massive.
Over the border in Nepal, floods and landslides also triggered by the monsoon have left at least 39 people dead mostly in remote parts of the country, officials said.
The military operation was concentrating on reaching the worst-hit Kedarnath temple area, as families of the missing faced an anxious wait in Uttarakhand capital's Dehradun.
Some of those rescued told of scrambling to higher ground to escape raging waters, only to watch helplessly as below them buildings, cars and even dead bodies were swept away.
"There is nothing left in Kedarnath now except the temple," pilgrim Sitaram Sukhatiahe said after arriving by helicopter in Dehradun.
"It was shocking to watch a place bustling with people metamorphose in a matter of a few hours into an island of death and destruction," he said.
One of those stranded was cricket star Harbhajan Singh, who was attempting to reach a Sikh pilgrimage site but had to take refuge in a police station.
"Some people are saying that we're stuck but I wouldn't say that we're stuck, I'd say we've been saved by God," said the spin bowler, who was later flown out of the flood-hit area by military chopper.
"With the kind of rainstorm we witnessed, anything could have happened. Many people lost their lives," the cricketer said.
Nearly 10,000 soldiers along with 13 teams from the National Disaster Response Force have been deployed for the rescue and relief effort, the government said.
Paramilitary officers have been building rope and log bridges across raging rivers to try to reach those stranded.
The monsoon, which covers the subcontinent from June to September, usually brings some flooding. But the heavy rains arrived early this year, catching many by surprise and exposing the country's lack of preparedness.
(With HT, PTI, AFP inputs)