Uttarakhand disaster: Locals feared Kedarnath-like tragedy
- The massive disaster had claimed seven lives till Sunday evening. Twelve had been rescued and about 190 were still missing.
By Ankur Sharma
Forty-two-year-old Rakesh Dhimri, a resident of Raini village, was sipping his tea of Sunday morning when he suddenly got up on his chair to enquire about a loud sound of water gushing down.
On coming out of his house, he saw a huge amount of muck flowing towards the under-construction Rishi Ganga hydel power project, enough to remind him of the memories of 2013 Kedarnath tragedy which killed thousands of people.
Like Dhimri, many other residents of the small village of Raini near the dam got out of their houses staring down at the river in shock and fear, breaching the dam where at least 40 workers are missing.
"The first thing that came to my mind after seeing the swollen river was the Kedarnath tragedy which swallowed thousands of lives. My family and I were just praying to God to protect us from similar possible tragedy. Fortunately, we were saved but the workers on the dam site were not so lucky," said Dhimri.
Mahendra Prakash Semwal, a resident of Chamoli town, about 24 kilometres from Rishi Ganga project said, "We were informed by the authorities about the dam breach and just are praying to God while many of us are shifting to safe places from the riverside."
"We were just holding our breaths with all our eyes on the Alaknanda river in which the water level was increased due to the glacier burst. We continued in the same state till the water level receded in the river and gave us a sigh of relief," said Semwal. "We would, however, not sleep tonight out of panic and fearing a much bigger disaster at night like Kedarnath," he added.
There was panic all around as the news of the disaster spread in the thinly populated mountainous region, close to China-Nepal border. Many people living close to the river could be seen running out of their homes with whatever belongings they could take. Fortunately, there was not much water in the river to reach their homes.
The massive disaster had claimed seven lives till Sunday evening. Twelve had been rescued and about 190 were still missing after damage to two dams, Rishi Ganga and Dhauli Ganga. Many residents of Chamoli questioned the government on setting up the two projects there despite resistance by locals and environmentalists.
"The disaster had caused huge loss of life and property in the area. The government should have assessed all the aspects, including scientific, before setting up the projects in the area which probably destroyed the Rishi Ganga valley completely," said Pradeep Farswan, a resident of Chamoli.
He added, "The government should help to provide the basic needs to the affected people including the labourers working in the Dhauli Ganga project as some of them, who were not present at the time of the incident, are wandering restlessly like the lockdown times."
State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) personnel were among the first to respond to the tragedy by initiating a rescue operation.
"Initially, the people of the area were in panic. They feared that Kedarnath-like tragedy may happen again," said an SDRF personnel who was rushed for relief work at Rishi Ganga hydel project.
NK Joshi, Chamoli district disaster management officer said, "As the disaster was considerably big, the residents of the area were in panic. However, we tried to handle that by making announcements in the area, urging people to stay away from the river and get to safety."
"We also took to social media platforms actively urging them not to pay heed to any rumours about the incidents including some old unrelated videos. Despite that, many were still in panic which subsided only after the water level in the river went down to normal," said Joshi.
Informing about the casualties and other loss in the disaster, he said, "So far, the rescue agencies have recovered seven bodies and saved 12 workers from a tunnel in Dhauli Ganga project. Efforts are on to rescue others who are stuck in another 250 metres-long tunnel which is completely filled with muck."
"God has saved me," said a worker as he came out from a make-shift trench dug inside the river muck. "I cannot believe I am alive. Inside the tunnel, we were working at some distance and got no time to respond to the water. I was saved as I hooked myself into a corner," an unidentified worker who was rescued by SDRF personnel at Tapovan hydel project said.
On the number of total missing people, Joshi said that the exact figure could not be ascertained. Other officials, however, claimed that about 190 workers are missing who were working in the two dams at the time of the incident.
"Luckily it was a Sunday due to which many workers didn't come. Had it been a working day, the feared loss of life would have been much bigger," said Joshi.
Earlier in the day, as soon as the incident was reported, state leadership, including chief minister and state chief secretary, got into action mode to monitor the situation with CM Trivendra Singh Rawat later flying off to Tapovan to assess the situation and monitor rescue operation.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah also spoke to him on the situation while assuring every possible help in the rescue work.
The rescue operation is still on with personnel from the SDRF, the NDRF, the ITBP and the Army involved along with choppers. It will continue on Monday as well.