New Delhi: Rescue teams were finally able to evacuate some of the people stranded in higher reaches of Uttarakhand on Wednesday even though damaged roads and washed away bridges continued to hinder evacuation throughout the day. The government, on its part, has pumped in immediate relief funds and rescue choppers to the battered north Indian state, which has been devastated due to torrential rains that have caused massive landslides and fatal floods.
The Indian Army managed to rescue 9,000 people from areas around Uttarkashi even though thousands still remained without any help in the state's remotest part - Kedarnath. Special mountain rescue teams have been formed by the Army to provide immediate relief to the stranded tourists and pilgrims. This is the season for many pilgrimages that take place in the state, resulting in high number of people congregating in different part of Uttarakhand. Many tourists also head over to the hilly state to escape harsh north Indian summer.
Both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the state's Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna have warned that the death toll - currently at 150 - is likely to swell further as many still remain missing or without help. PM Manmohan and Congress President Sonia Gandhi did an aerial survey of the affected parts of the state, post which the PM announced that Rs 1000 crore would be released as disaster relief fund. He also said Rs 145 crores would be provided to the state as immediate relief fund and the families of those who have perished in the tragedy would receive Rs 2 lakh. People whose houses have been completely destroyed would get a help of Rs 1 lakh while those whose homes have been partially damaged would receive Rs 50,000.
Twenty-two helicopters have been pressed into rescue work and the strategy is to airlift people from the worst hit areas. But on the ground, the movement of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) personnel has been crippled by landslides.
Even though aerial surveys and rescue missions by the Indian Army, Indian Air Force and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and clearing skies provided some aid to the people, places that have been most affected by the nature's fury have remained inaccessible due damaged transport and road services. Lack of manpower also added to the woes, though Bahuguna sought to clarify that there are enough resources and funds available in the state.
However, he admitted that there is no estimate of the exact death toll yet and that he did not expect the monsoon havoc to turn into a calamity of this proportions. Bahuguna confirmed that 500 roads and 175 bridges in the state have been washed away. He further added that thousands still remain stranded in the state. According to CNN-IBN, around 70,000 people are stuck in the state.
Bahuguna also said it would be difficult for the Kedarnath Yatra to be resumed for a year. "I don't think we can resume the Yatra there for one year. 18 km of road has been damaged. Kedarnath is in debris. The temple has been saved but there is eight to ten feet of debris all around," he told reporters.
The Chief Minister said until the road is constructed, the debris cannot be removed. "We need machines, cooperation of the Army, Air Force. So, it is a problem of large magnitude. The state government and the central government together are doing their best," he said. Bahuguna said if the weather is favourable in the coming days, then things will improve.
Meanwhile, Minister of State for Home RPN Singh tried to defend Bahuguna's visit to Delhi, which many see as inappropriate as his state is suffering from such a huge crisis, and said the Chief Minister barely stayed in Delhi for half hour.
Singh also said the rescue conditions are very difficult but that the paramilitary forces are doing their best. He confirmed that roads have severely been affected in Kedarnath hampering the rescue operation. "But our primary concern is to make people safe and secure. This is a problem of huge magnitude," he said.
MoS Home also said there will be no discrimination done in evacuating people as reports of VIPs receiving special treatment and being rescued earlier than other citizens surfaced. "Whoever is worst affected and whoever we reach first will get help. There will be no special treatment given to anybody," Singh said.
Noting that the government's first priority is to evacuate the people who are in grave danger, Singh said, "It's not that 60,000 people are stranded in hills and water. Some of them are in hotels and homes." He declined to go into the remarks of BJP leaders including Sushma Swaraj with regard to the disaster, saying, "Instead of making slogans, what is important is what we do...I would not like to make it a political issue or give it a colour of politics."
Meanwhile, Railways decided to press services of special trains to rescue people stranded due to the flash floods at Haridwar, Rishikesh and other areas. Railway Minister Mallikarjun Kharge has instructed the Railway Board to do whatever possible to rescue people from the flood affected areas, said a senior Railway Ministry official.
Special trains will be pressed into service from stations like Dehradun, Rishikesh and Haridwar for stranded passengers. Moradabad division has been asked to arrange trains for the stranded passengers. Special counters will be opened at stations for these passengers, said the official.
Passenger profile will be carried out to know their destination and accordingly train services will be launched, the official said.
However, the vast destruction in the state that damaged routes of several important pilgrimages prompted the government to cancel batches 2 to 10 of Kailash Manasarovar Yatra. The road between Almora and the road-head at Tawaghat has been washed away at several places and some major bridges have also been damaged.
Uttarkashi: 01374-226126, 226161
The ITBP helpline and control room numbers: 011-24362892, 9968383478
Army medical emergency helpline numbers: 18001805558, 18004190282, 8009833388
Uttarakhand Helpline numbers: 0135-2710334, 2710335, 2710233
(With Additional Inputs From PTI)IBN Newsroom Buzz: Uttarakhand floods are a national tragedy in the truest sense of the term, says Rajdeep Sardesai