The Uttarakhand tragedy deepened on Saturday as the speaker of the state assembly suggested the death toll could be 10,000 — 10 times higher than the official estimate — and fears of epidemics and child trafficking grew.
“No one can give exact death figures but after travelling to different disaster-affected areas and (based on) information gathered from victims and other locals of the area I would say that death toll is around 10,000,” Govind Singh Kunjwal told HT.
Chief minister Vijay Bahuguna, who has stated that over 1,000 people may have perished in the calamity, trashed Kunjwal's claim, saying it is incorrect and that true figures will come out once the debris have been cleared, but Bahuguna did acknowledge that the number of dead may rise. .
State relief minister Yashpal Arya had irked the state government a week ago by pegging the toll at 5,000 and Kunjwal’s fresh estimate is likely to cause more consternation, especially as Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde.
"The figure as of now stands at around 1,000. It could go up after the clearance of debris at Kedarnath and other places," he told Hindustan Times by telephone, adding that the state would dispense with the usual practice of waiting seven years before declaring a missing person dead. And BJP President Rajnath Singh stoked the fire, accusing the UPA government of bluffing the public on the death toll.
It is widely believed that the final figures will be far higher than official estimates. In the pilgrimage town of Kedarnath, an unknown number of bodies lie buried under rubble, eyewitnesses said. Dr. Sanjay Das, a professor and head of forensic medicine at Himalayan Institute of Hospital Trust (HIHT), Jolly Grant, who visited Kedarnath between June 22 and June 27 for taking genetic material samples and conducting post mortems, said that bodies of the deceased had starting rotting.
"Due to cold weather, dead bodies didn't decompose quickly. But, now 14 days after the disaster, the bodies have started decomposing. Flies hover over them and maggots can be seen wriggling around," Das told Hindustan Times, adding that chances of an epidemic of water and air-borne diseases were very high. Though the tragedy has been replete with tales of humanity and great courage, it has also brought out the worst in some.
There have been reports of looting and rape of some of the victims. And the dark shadow of potential child trafficking is growing bigger, rights organisations said. At risk are kids orphaned by the floods, whose numbers have not been estimated with any accuracy by the state government . Deepika Panwar of Child Line, a helpline run by the central government points out that the fears of children being taken to the plain areas for child labour looms large.
“There are fears that gangs or individuals who indulge in child trafficking have become active, sensing an opportunity in such tragic times when the main focus of the government is on the rescue works", she said.
Only one unclaimed girl of 3 years has been admitted at the Doon Hospital for treatment of fractures in leg after she was recovered in Rishikesh. We are keeping an eye for such anti social elements that indulge in trafficking of children and have stepped up checking", said DIG (Police Headquarters) Sanjay Gunjyal.
(With PTI inputs)