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Uttarakhand rescue ops reaches last leg; snowfall slows down process

The rescue operations entered the final phase at Badrinath on Sunday as the security forces attempted to evacuate the 500-odd stranded pilgrims at the shrine. Snowfall in Kedarnath has brought cremation to a halt.

india Updated: Jun 30, 2013 17:34 IST

The rescue operations entered the final phase at Badrinath on Sunday as the security forces attempted to evacuate the 500-odd stranded pilgrims at the shrine.

Snowfall in Kedarnath brought cremation to a halt even as foggy conditions prevailed disallowing Indian Air Force to carry on rescue activites.

This has delayed the chopper takeoffs, further delaying the transport of firewood required for the cremation. The fog has made IAF choppers’ flight from Gauchar, close to Badrinath, impossible, sources say.

"We will never know the exact number of those dead and the number of people who have been buried or washed away," he told PTI in an interview.

Bahuguna also put the number of people missing in the flash floods in the state at 3,000.

Meanwhile the Rudraprayag administration admitted that due to bad weather only 30 bodies could be cremated in the span of three days. The number of bodies buried in the debris was, however, reported to be over 200.

The team of doctors assigned with the task of DNA sampling from the bodies said that many bodies had deteriorated completely and there were chances of epidemic if the cremation didn’t begin at the earliest.

"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," Dr. Sanjay Das, a professor and head of forensic medicine at Himalayan Institute of Hospital Trust (HIHT), Jolly Grant Das told Hindustan Times.

DIG Sanjay Gunjyal, who had been supervising the cremation, said that transporting firewood through choppers was risky affair in the bad weather. Another team led by IPS officer Nilesh Bharne was now in-charge at Kedarnath.

Uttarakhand speaker Govind Singh Kunjwal on Saturday had stated that over 1,000 people may have perished in the calamity.

“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.

"But after hearing accounts of the people coming down from the mountains and that of people calling me up and seeing the piles of bodies, I feel the toll could be well over 10,000.

Uttarakhand health minister

Surinder Singh Negi

on Sunday did not discount the state assembly speaker Govind Singh Kunjwal's claim that 10,000 people have perished in the flood, saying it was an "estimate" as many bodies are still buried in the Kedarnath valley area.

Speaking to IANS, the minister said the estimates are based on what evacuated people have recounted to the rescue teams and to government officials.

"He (Kunjwal) has given an estimated figure. At the moment, it is an estimate. It can go down, or it could go up. It is too early to give the exact number of deaths in the tragedy that has completely devastated the state," Negi said.

Negi also said that 300-400 people are still stranded in Badrinath and waiting to be rescued. The Indian Air Force evacuated over 800 people Saturday.

Army set up tents in the local school for pilgrims from Gangotri. HT photo/Prasad Nichenametla

The health minister said that there is a fear that the decomposing bodies in the Kedarnath valley could lead to an epidemic.

"Our first priority is to dig out the bodies, and the second is to restore the entire route of the Kedarnath valley. The third is to see that there is no outbreak of epidemic. We are monitoring the situation. So far, there is no fear," Negi said.

Jawans of the Garhwal Rifles distribute food to the victims. HT photo/Prasad Nichenametla

Chief minister Vijay Bahuguna trashed the speaker's comment and called it 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.

"We will never know the exact number of those dead and the number of people who have been buried or washed away," he told PTI in an interview.

Earlier, when home minister Sushilkumar Shinde had visited the flood-ravaged state, he had said that it was important to find out the number of the missing.

While the home minister assured the choppers will remain in the state for 15 more days to aid in the rescue work, army chief general Bikram Singh said "we will get all the citizens out wherever they are".

The Army Chief General Bikram Singh on Friday had sending a word of assurance that they would continue their operations till all the people stranded in flood-ravaged Uttarakhand were rescued.

Gen Singh said he had asked his commanders to launch relief operations in "very, very difficult conditions" in a proactive manner, without waiting for any requisition from authorities.

IAF's MI-17 chopper lands at the Harsil Army helipad.HT photo/Prasad Nichenametla

Kedarnath, one of the revered pilgrimage sites for millions of Hindus, is situated at an altitude of 3,586 mt in the lap of the majestic mountain peaks and near the head of river Mandakini. It can be reached after a steep 14-km-long trek.

The incessant rains that hit Uttarakhand over three days from June 14 triggered flash floods and landslides, leading to hundreds of deaths, while hundreds more are missing.

With questions being raised whether large-scale deaths in Uttarkhand could have been averted, the MeT department on Sunday said it had issued "timely" warnings of heavy rains and landslides while the state government claimed there was not enough prior indication of a "crisis of this magnitude".

Uttarkhand MeT department director Anand Sharma said that they had issued these advisories from June 14 for the next couple of days and even suggested that the Char Dham yatra of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri and Gangotri be postponed for 4-5 days.

Over 100,000 people have been evacuated so far.

Closure report:

* Persons evacuated till date: 1,07,700

* 1300 villages cut-off by road

* 3000 people still missing

-- Information as released by NDMA and Uttarakhand government

(With inputs from HT)

First Published: Jun 30, 2013 10:58 IST