What is the death toll in Uttarakhand: anybody’s guess

Dehra Dun : In a gruesome tragedy as that which hit the Garhwal division of Uttarakhand on June 16, where rescue and relief operations continue even after a fortnight, the casualty figures are normally clouded under government conceal, exaggerated accounts, extracting bodies buried under debris or washed down in the rivers and non availability of records of how many people were actually present, at the affected areas. This is exactly what has happened in Uttarakhand.

This is perhaps why different persons are giving different numbers of the people who are feared to have been killed. Union home minister Sushil Shinde put the toll at about 900, the National Disaster management Authority (NDMA) chairman V K Duggal has been quoted at over 3000, and the Uttarakhand government figures are at about 850 dead and over 2300 missing.

But perhaps Uttarakhand vidhan sabha speaker, Govind Singh Kunjwal, who is known to speaking out his mind, was of the view that the toll could cross the 10,000 mark.

Though this is what many, including officials admit, albeit off the record, it has irked chief minister Vijay Bahuguna to say that some restraint should be maintained while giving the figures of the death toll.

Incidentally, the chief minister made it clear that his government would not hide the death toll of the tragedy and would make it known after the exercise of removing the debris and combing the interiors of the hills was done, which has been well received by the people. But the fact remains that there are still hundreds of people searching for their near and dear ones in the flood hit areas of this small mountain state and the control rooms, which has led to fears of the count going very high.

Then there have been versions of those engaged in the rescue and relief operations. A personnel of the ITBP was quoted as saying that there are thousands of bodies littering the stretch in and around what use to be Ram Bara, till it was wiped out in the tragedy. Realising that the person had overshot his domain, a senior officer of the force clarified that it was just a few hundred.

Even a pilot of a helicopter who was engaged in flying sorties rescuing people from the Kedarnath, Gauri Kund areas has gone on record to say that the smell of decaying and putrefying flesh had reached such proportions that it had almost impossible to fly over the stretch between gauri Kund and Kedarnath.

Meanwhile there were reports that even the teams that had been sent for performing the last rites of the bodies, preserving their DNA and even photographing them could not stand the stench that was emitting in the region and beat a hasty retreat. This perhaps explains why there were just about 40 cremations at Kedarnath, when it was said that there were about 120 bodies within the temple itself.

There are even reports that the police team that is now camped in the temple town has put up its tent about two kms away from where the township existed to be away from the smell of putrefying flesh. In fact, a senior officer of the force has asked that special team be flown in to help extract the bodies that are buried under the debris.

What lends some credibility to reports that there are a large number of bodies lying on the seven kms stretch from a little above Gauri Kund to a little below Kedarnath, with Ram Bara being the focal point is the fact that the place has so far been kept out of bounds for the media. Even reporters of various newspapers and TV channels who have gone to Kedarnath, have not shown any visuals or reports of this stretch.

However, the authorities deny that there is any such ban in force saying that the media is free to go where it wants. However, why Ram Bara has not been reached is the fact that the entire hamlet like township which grew over the past few years with the mushrooming of hotels, guest houses and dharamshalas has been completely wiped out and there is no place to even land a chopper.

It will be sometime that the magnitude of the loss in the worst-ever tragedy to hit any state of the country, will be known, both in terms of casualty and the number of houses, guest houses, hotels, dhabas and fertile land that has been washed away. Both the centre and state governments will find it hard to compensate the people of the losses suffered in the tragedy that all would like to forget, rather than remember.

A journalist with over 40 years of experience, Jagdish Bhatt is Editor Hill Post (Uttarakhand). Jagdish has worked with India's leading English dailies, which include Times of India, Indian Express, Pioneer and several other reputed publications. A highly acclaimed journalist, Jagdish is a recipient of many awards, latest being the 2011 Development Journalism Award. He lives in Dehra Dun.

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