Soldiers in the north of India are battling against time to reach thousands of stranded pilgrims and tourists before the onset of further rains and the danger of further landslides.
As officials said the death toll from the “Himalayan tsunami” had now reached 600, troops and emergency workers were still trying to reach 50,000 people who remain stranded in the state of Uttarakhand state. On Saturday it emerged that soldiers had spotted around 1,000 pilgrims stuck close to the famous Kedarnath shrine. They have been taking shelter in ravines since huge monsoon rains last week triggered chaos.
India’s home minister Sushilkumar Shinde visited Uttarakhand and heard about the operation to rescue the pilgrims still stuck. With warnings from meteorologists that more rains were on their way, he set a three-day deadline to complete the rescue efforts.
One of several things the authorities appear to be struggling to deliver is hard data: reports say that the 10,000 soldiers leading the operation have so far rescued anywhere between 35,000-70,000 people and that between 40,000-50,000 still have to be reached. There have been reports in the Indian media that thousands of people remain unaccounted for.
On Friday, officials said the death toll had reached 600 as Uttarakhand’s chief minister, Vijay Bahuguna, said 560 bodies were buried deep in slush caused by the landslides. At the same time, it was reported that another 40 corpses were found floating in the Ganges River, close to the holy town of Hardiwar.
But officials fear the final death toll could leap as rescuers reach more and more pilgrim sites that have for a week been inaccessible. Survivors have told of areas where there are many bodies unrecovered.
The job of reaching the stranded pilgrims has been made all the more difficult because so many of the roads in the area were washed away by the cloudburst that struck and the ensuing landslides.
“People are going to need warm clothes, blankets, food and water,” said Nisha Agrawal of Oxfam, which is trying to work with the government to assist people.
“The areas are inaccessible except by helicopter. And we don’t even know what the needs of the local people in those areas is going to be because we have not reached there. So far, all the focus has been on the pilgrims.”
The annual monsoon rains of South Asia are both a blessing and a curse to the subcontinent. Usually, the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who visit the Hindu shrines dotted in India’s Himalayan foothills time their journey either side of the summer downpours.
But this year the rains, the fastest moving since 1961, hit several weeks early and caught hundreds of thousands unawares. Since last weekend, experts have said the authorities in the foothills have repeatedly ignored environment regulations that would limit construction of homes of business close to rivers and control the urban spread.
They have also revealed that the disaster management authorities in Uttarakhand had made virtually no preparations.
As army engineers rebuilding bridges and clear roads to enable thousands of people to leave the area, there are more and more stories from survivors.
Sri Devi, a pilgrim tourist from neighbouring Nepal, said she and her companions took shelter in a building in Govindghat, a small town on the road to the Sikh holy site of Hemkund, after their car was washed away. The 60-year-old woman was among a group of stranded tourists rescued from the town.
“It was raining boulders down the mountain and then a flood of water swept away everything. The road was washed away and we were stuck for four days without any food,” she told the Press Trust of India.