Uttarakhand in misery, thousands still stranded (Intro Roundup)

Dehradun, June 20 (IANS) Grim tales of death, destruction and food shortages poured out of Uttarakhand Thursday as about 70,000 people still remained trapped in the flood-ravaged hills waiting to be rescued.

With the magnitude of the misery caused by weekend torrential rains and flash floods becoming clear, officials admitted it may take three years or so for pilgrimages to resume to the revered Kedarnath shrine.

B.D. Singh, chief executive officer of the Badrinath-Kedarnath Temple Committee, told IANS: “What we are seeing is very painful and unbelievable. We don’t expect the Char Dham Yatra to resume in the next three years.”

Another official said the Kedarnath shrine, built by Adi Shankara over 1,000 years back, survived the devastating floods but virtually everything around it had been destroyed.

“Call it a miracle but the Nandi statue and the other idols in the temple are intact,” the official told IANS. “Pilgrims who were in the temple when the disaster struck also survived.

“But the destruction all around the temple has been terrible,” he said, adding the death toll in the floods and cloudburst could be much more than the officially stated 150.

Ram Bada, located about seven kilometres from the temple, has been reportedly destroyed, he said. “There were 5,000 people at Ram Bada when a cloudburst took place.”

Military, paramilitary and civilian authorities were engaged in a massive rescue operation in the state but one officer said the weather was unfriendly for rescue by air.

Many of those stranded were moved to Rishikesh near Haridwar. The highways linking Rishikesh to Joshimath and Uttarkashi were now open.

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna has described the flood fury as a “Himalayan tsunami” and said he was numbed by the magnitude of the death and destruction.

He said many kilometres of roads had been washed away. Many bridges, houses, water lines, canals, check dams, electricity lines, power houses and other public and private property had been severely damaged.

In New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed to people to generously donate to the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund to help Uttarakhand’s people.

“At this moment, affected people need our help to tide over the calamity that has fallen upon them to survive and rebuild their lives,” he said, urging people to “stand with our distressed fellow countrymen, and actively participate in national efforts to support them in their difficult time”.

More than 20 helicopters are engaged in rescuing those stranded, including pilgrims on their way to or returning from the Kedarnath shrine.

Officials said that while the evacuation process had been fast-tracked, more than 70,000 people were still stranded at various places in the hill state.

“We are trying our best but there are limitations. The army is working under testing times,” said an army official.

More than four days after the cloudburst and incessant rains led to misery, the thousands caught up at various places were faced with lack of potable water, food and power.

Many of those who have returned told IANS that the stranded do not have enough food and prices of even potato chips and mineral water had shot up.

“There is an acute shortage of drinking water, medicines and food. One can’t imagine the situation,” said a pilgrim from Basti in Uttar Pradesh rescued by a private chopper.

To bring back his family of five, he said, he had to cough up Rs.11 lakh on touch down at Dehradun.

Some food packets dropped by choppers were falling in the swollen rivers, some survivors complained.

Authorities said 20,000 food packets were dropped by choppers Thursday. Some 500 cars stuck between Guptkashi and Ghansali in Uttarakhand had also been taken out.

The Supreme Court directed the central and Uttarakhand governments to provide immediate relief to the flood-affected and arrange for air-lifting the stranded people.

A bench of Justice A.K. Patnaik and Justice Ranjan Gogoi said that relief, including food, drinking water, medicine and fuel, must be provided to the affected and stranded people without any discrimination.

The direction came in the wake of PIL seeking a direction for making available immediate necessities to nearly 3,000 people stranded at Gangotri but the court expanded the scope of the petition to all affected areas.

Some officials fear thousands may be dead after being washed away in the strong currents of rain swollen rivers or after coming under the debris of collapsed buildings.

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