Till Saturday, the armed forces had brought to safety over 22,000 people in the flood-hit Uttarakhand, either by foot or by air, and supplied 50,000kg of food packets, medical kits and relief material to over 70,000 stranded. Forty-nine thousand civilians are still stuck. “We have deployed 8,500 soldiers on the ground and will rescue everyone stranded,” promised Central Army Commander Lieutenant General Anil Chait.
With the terrain and a poor government network placing the state administration in no position to even initiate bare minimum relief work, the Centre had nominated Chait as the overall in-charge. The Army had also deployed two JCBs to move fallen earth and create access to remote areas. Nine helicopters-Cheetah and Dhruv -flown by Army pilots are looking for those alive and stranded in gorges, ravines and riverbeds. Among personnel are 10 teams of troops skilled in mountaineering, which established contact with 1,000 pilgrims in Junglechatti on Saturday.
Charanjit Kaur from Ludhiana was in Hemkunt Sahib. “For two days we had no food and water. The Army gave food, clothes and medical aid. If they had not saved us we would have not been talking to you,” said Kaur.
The Indian Air Force (IAF), which began relief sorties a week ago, deployed a total of 38 helicopters and four planes. It landed the special operations C-130J plane at Dharasu on a compacted runway. It flew in relief material and fuel. The plane brought back rescued pilgrims, who are being treated at Army medical camps in Hindon.
“With the kind of devastation we see from the sky, we have been hovering the choppers close to the ground while transferring relief material,” said an IAF officer.
Satman Singh of Dasuya could not stop praising the Army. He says, “We were stuck at Govind Ghat. The jawans made a ropeway and rescued us. It was death and dead bodies all over. We survived on rain water.” Nearly 2,300 pilgrims were evacuated by road after jawans of Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) constructed a temporary bridge across the swollen river.
Miracle of Nandi
On the fateful night of June 16, Rakesh Tiwari, SDM, Rudraprayag, was on his way to alert the pilgrims. “The PWD guest house was washed away before my eyes. I saved myself by holding on to the Nandi idol. Only the idol is intact.” says Tiwari, whose both legs are injured, but is still coordinating rescue over the phone. His eight-year-old daughter is stranded in Badrinath.
Tiwari adds says that anywhere between 14,000-20,000 are stranded.
Ironically Rudraprayag-the worst affected area-is without a District Magistrate. SDM Laxmi Raj Chouhan is overseeing rescue operations in the absence of a DM and an injured SDM.
Uttarakhand has been transformed into a theatre of horror. Such was the impact of the devastation in the area that Vijay Dhaundhiyal, Rudraprayag DM, suffered a heart attack.
Joshimath was comparatively lucky. Sirens hooting in Gobind Ghat and Ghangaria broke the silence of the night of June 16 around 7-8 pm. They announced the rising level of water in Alaknanda’s tributaries. Pilgrims on their way to Badrinath were stopped at Joshimath and sent back. By 9 pm on June 17, the buildings were shaking with the impact of the water’s flow. At 2 am, all hell broke loose. The Ghangaria bridge floated away like a piece of paper.
“I saw half a green hill break and fall into the Alaknanda and disappear in seconds. Buildings crumbled into the water. We screamed and ran for our lives in the dark, leaving all belongings behind,” said Anjali Sharma, a paramedical student who was at Gobindghat. She added, “The only reason we have been saved today is because the locals were alert.” Anjali and her friends refused to be ferried to Doon by a chopper. They wanted the old, the sickly, the women and children to leave first.
Nearly 3,000 out of 25,000 Sikh pilgrims from Punjab stranded in Govindghat, Govind Dham and Joshimath gurdwaras on their way to Hemkunt Sahib have been evacuated. Many of them were duped and overcharged for food while they were stranded.
“I had to buy a bottle of water for `100, a chapatti for `60, noodles for `50 to feed my family,’’ says Charanjit Kaur. Gurpreet Kaur who hails from Jalandhar says, “We bought rice and rajma for `100. When we complained about over-charging the police turned a deaf ear.”
Meanwhile the Uttarakhand government has started special helpline for Gujarati pilgrims.
The Andhra Pradesh government says around 2,500 pilgrims from the state are stranded and 600 trapped.
Politics Over Dead
As the dead lie buried in mounds of mud higher than houses, the game of political mud slinging and damage control has already begun. Congress president Sonia Gandhi is directly overseeing rescue and relief operations in coordination with the Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers of the two affected hill states, Vijay Kumar Bahuguna and Virbhadra Singh.
The party was at loss to explain why the Congress poll panel chief Rahul Gandhi was missing in action and why the massive disaster has not been declared a national calamity.
“We urge the home minister to reconsider their decision on not declaring the Uttarakhand flood as a national calamity,” said BJP chief Rajnath Singh. The Congress has set up a control-room in Dehradun to accelerate relief work. Congress leaders Sanjay Kapoor and Mahendra Joshi have been deployed to coordinate rescue operations. All Congress chief ministers and PCC chiefs have been asked to rush relief materials to Uttarakhand and put other issues on the back burner.
On Saturday, Congress treasurer Motilal Vora, Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary Ahmed Patel, and the Delhi and Haryana chief ministers Sheila Dikshit and Bhupinder Hooda attended a Congress emergency meeting to chalk out an action plan. Hooda was promptly dispatched to Uttarakhand.
The meeting estimated that rebuilding the state would cost around `5,000 crore-the party is trying to contribute lavishly keeping the 2014 polls in mind in spite of facing a cash crunch, say insiders.