Stranded in Uttarakhand: 50,000 trapped by flooding and landslides after 'Himalayan tsunami' hits India

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Fears that death toll of 150 could soar, with up to 14,000 unaccounted for

Delhi

Indian troops and rescue workers are battling to help 50,000 people still trapped in the Himalayan foothills after massive monsoons triggered devastating flooding and landslides. The Indian media has reported that up to 14,000 could still be unaccounted for and that the death toll of the "Himalayan tsunami" of around 150 people could soar.

In conditions made desperately difficult as result of roads being washed away, around 10,000 soldiers and dozens of helicopters are spearheading efforts to reach people that have been cut off since monsoon rains hit at the weekend.

Reports say food and clean water is in short supply and that operations are being hampered by the problems of getting fuel to the helicopters. On Friday evening it was reported that 40 bodies had been discovered floating in the River Ganges close to the city of Haridwar.

India's home ministry said a total of 33,100 people had been rescued so far but that at least 50,400 are still stranded. India's NDTV television channel said a further 14,000 people remain unaccounted for and that officials and rescue workers are concerned the death toll in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand could leap.

"The tragedy is huge and damages tremendous with vast tracts of land still submerged under tonnes of debris. The casualties must run into several hundreds," Vijay Bahuguna, the chief minister of Uttarakhand told reporters. One of his senior officials said the final death toll could be "shockingly huge".

Many of those left struggling for their lives were tourists and Hindu pilgrims who flock to the mountains during the summer months to visit numerous shines. Among the worst hit areas were the pilgrimage towns of Kedarnath and Badrinath where homes, roads and even temples were washed away.

The rescue effort has been undermined by the challenge of refuelling the helicopters, which have been are operating out of the village of Guptkashi, located at 4,300ft in the Mandakini river valley.

Fuel is usually transported to the helipad by tanker, but because the roads have been washed away choppers are instead having to fly to the state capital, Dehradun, to refuel and then return to Guptkashi. This has been sharply reducing the number of sorties the helicopters can fly

The monsoon rains that sweep across South Asia every year bring both life and death. While hundreds of millions of people are dependant on them for the water and irrigation they deliver, every year results in flash-floods, landslides and worse.

Experts say that in India's case, the natural calamity has been worsened by man-made excess and negligence. Deforestation of the Himalayan valleys, unregulated construction and the establishment of large dams for hydro-electricity schemes which weaken the valley walls, have all been blamed for contributing to the scale of the disaster.

Environmentalists have said climate change that has resulted in increased glacial melt could also be a factor.

Professor Maharaj Pandit of Delhi University's department of environmental studies, said the phenomenon of cloudbursts was nothing new to the Himalayas. Yet he said regulations that prohibited the building of properties close to rivers were being flouted and no-one being held responsible.

He also suggested recent years had been a massive increase in pilgrims - something he called "neo-religious tourism". "There days there are billboards advertising the pilgrim sites and these are sponsored by various political and religious groups," he said.

He added: "Now you have up to 100,000 to 200,000 pilgrims a day. These people have to be accommodated and they are put up in cheap shanties."

At the same time, preparedness for the disaster appears to have been minimal. The Times of India reported that an audit of Uttarakhand's disaster management authority, created in 2007, had never actually met or issued any guidelines or regulations for the state, considered a "disaster-prone" area.

"The state authorities were virtually non-functional," said the auditors' report.

Indian paramilitary officers have been building rope and log bridges across raging rivers to try to reach those stranded. Nearly 10,000 soldiers along with 13 teams from the so-called national disaster response force have been deployed for the rescue and relief effort, the government said.

In the aftermath of the disaster, India's prime minister Manmohan Singh, has launched an appeal for charitable donations. Over the border in Nepal, floods and landslides also triggered by the monsoon have left at least 39 people dead, mostly in remote parts of the country.

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