As India on Thursday began the mass cremation of hundreds of bodies left by the Himalayan floods, half a dozen politicians from rival parties have been condemned after scuffling at an airport and trying to lure survivors on to planes they had chartered.
In the latest in a number of incidents involving politicians to have triggered controversy since the flood struck ten days ago, television cameras caught the men pushing each other and shouting in the departures area of Dehradun airport.
The airport is being used as the hub for the ongoing rescue operation.
The argument on Wednesday, involving half-a-dozen members of parliament, focussed around efforts to return survivors from the southern state of Andhra Pradesh (AP). The main opposition party in the state, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) had chartered planes to take the survivors directly from Dehradun to AP.
Anxious that it was allowing the opposition to score a political march, the Congress party, which heads the federal government and the state government in AP, similarly arranged to charter planes.
Reports in the Indian media said that as Congress MPs were trying to escort survivors aboard their plane, the TDP politicians tried to lure the same passengers on their plane. Pushing and shoving broke out and police had to pull them apart. Both groups have apologised and blamed the other for starting the fight.
The behaviour of the politicians has created outrage, contrasting as it does with the relentless efforts of military and rescue teams to find and locate thousands of pilgrims who have for days been left stranded by the floods and landslides caused by early monsoon rains.
Other politicians have been criticised for breaching governments requests to stay away from the disaster zone and take aerial inspections of the devastation. Supporters of Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat and a man many believe could become the country’s next prime minister, were criticised for claiming he had single-handedly arranged the rescue of 15,000 Gujaratis in one day.
The controversy over the ugly scenes at Dehradun came as teams set about the task of carrying out mass cremations of bodies recovered from the destroyed flood zone. The death toll currently stands at 822 but most expect it to climb steadily further as teams reach the most remote and cut-off locations that were affected by the damage.
In recent days, along with emergency supplies such as food, water, medicine and blankets, aircraft have been ferrying large quantities of firewood and ghee to the flood zone in the state of Uttarakhand. Ghee, or clarified butter, is used during Hindu cremation rites.
Reuters reported that 18 bodies were cremated on Wednesday in the temple town of Kedarnath, one of the areas that was worst affected, and that at least 40 were due to be cremated on Thursday in Guptkashi.
Experts have said the disposal of corpses is essential if the authorities are to reduce the risk of contaminating the water supply and triggering outbreaks of diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera. Hindu priests gave their permission for the mass rituals to go ahead.
The charity Plan International India, which is raising funds to provide food, shelter and water to children and families in Uttarakhand, said corpses were likely infecting water bodies.
“These water bodies are the only source the people there have. The water needs to be disinfected or else disease will spread further,” said Murali Kunduru, the charity’s emergency response manager.
He said the disaster was among the worst in Uttarakhand in the last 20 years. “It is not just the number of people who are dead but it is the size of the area involved,” he added.
An estimated 96,500 people have so far been evacuated by land and air.
Television channels have been broadcasting images images of desperate pilgrims scrambling to get aboard helicopters. Government officials said around 350 people had been reported missing but warned it was likely that there were more.