Badrinath: The focus of Uttarakhand rescue operations, which are now in their final phase, has shifted on saving 2000 people who are still stranded in the flood-hit state. However, evacuated pilgrims claim that far greater number of pilgrims are stranded than what the officials have been stating.
According to the Indian Air Force, 842 people were rescued from Badrinath on Saturday even as air sorties were stalled briefly due to bad weather and many pilgrims in Badrinath were evacuated on foot through a newly constructed foot track in Govindghat valley. Harsil was fully evacuated.
The road from Joshimath to Govindghat has also been restored and pilgrims are being evacuated on foot. But there is confusion over the number of pilgrims on ground.
The CNN-IBN team decided to verify these numbers and as it moved around in Badrinath, angry pilgrims lashed out at the media for allegedly listening to the government. The team moved from one ashram, lodge and hotel to another and visited over 90 establishments.
After a five hours survey, the numbers collected by the team stood at approximately 1200 stranded pilgrims in Badrinath alone. The number of locals who live here is 1500.
Many old men and women in poor health continue to be stranded. They need to be evacuated fast as temperatures drop to below 10 degrees at night. There is still a lot of anger in Badrinath against the authorities and even against the media.
Meanwhile in Uttarakhand's Rudraprayag district, poor roads and logistical bottlenecks hampered the movement of a National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) battalion which had left from Punjab for search and rescue operations. "When the Sikkim earthquake happened, we had left our base within hours of the first report of the disaster. But then, after landing in Bagdogra airport (near Siliguri in West Bengal), we had to wait for three days before we were moved to the impact zone. I had hoped that such delays would not be repeated. But this time around, it was the same story," Commanding Officer Jaideep Singh of Bathinda-based 7th NDRF Battalion, said at the Chardham helipad in Guptkashi.
Speed stands out as the main focus area for any future mission of a similar nature, he said. The Bhatinda team, one of the two NDRF units working on the search and rescue mission in Guptkashi, had set out on June 17 but it did not arrive here before June 21.
Efforts are also being made on a war-footing to ensure supply of essential relief material to over 600 villages in Rudraprayag, Chamoli and Uttarkashi districts, which are cut off after the floods. 2,379 metric tonnes of wheat and 2,875 metric tonnes of rice has so far been dispatched to these villages. The frequently changing weather is hampering work as the relief material can be supplied only by air, the officials said.
Road network in Uttarakhand has been badly damaged in the floods, with 259 roads damaged in Tehri, 139 in Dehradun, 132 in Uttarkashi, 110 in Chamoli and 71 in Rudraparayag district. Over 200 families living along the banks of Bhagirathi river have been asked to move to safer places following a rise in water level.
The MeT department, however, has sought to allay apprehensions, stating that the water level rise is mainly due to melting of glaciers with the sun showing up and that there is no flood threat. Uttarakhand MeT department Director Anand Sharma said the snow in upper reaches was melting with the sun coming out, and this was increasing water level in rivers.
"There is nothing to worry about as it will not create any flood situation," he said. Inclement weather hampered rescue operations and work to clear debris in worst-hit Kedarnath area.
Mass cremation of bodies continued for another day to minimise chances of an epidemic outbreak. The last rites of 34 bodies have been performed and the cremation of 12 more bodies pulled out from the debris is likely to be conducted soon after identification and other formalities have been completed, officials said.
With the threat of an epidemic outbreak looming large due to decaying bodies lying under debris, and some also flowing down the Ganga, teams of doctors have been sent to affected districts to initiate remedial action, the officials said. A team of experts from Archaeological Survey of India will visit the Kedarnath temple in Uttarakhand to assess the quantum of damage caused by the flood fury as also the restoration work required for the shrine.
But despite it being two weeks after tragedy struck Uttarakhand, authorities are still contradicting each other over the death toll. While state Assembly Speaker Govind Singh Kunjwal said more than ten thousand may have been killed, official records suggest only 900 deaths so far.
Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna has said that the exact figure will be known only after the debris are removed. However, Kunjwal said, "When I returned from Garhwal, I said the death toll could be between 5000 and 10,000. But now I think the death toll could be more than 10,000."
Meanwhile, in Mumbai, the funeral ceremony of Wing Commander Darryl Castelino will be held on Sunday. The 38-year-old wing commander was one of the IAF crew members who died on Tuesday after an Mi-17 V5 chopper on rescue mission crashed in Uttarakhand.
(With Additional Inputs From PTI)