150 killed in Uttarakhand deluge, PM warns toll may rise

Dehradun - The death toll in Uttarakhand rain and flash flood fury, which rose to 150 on Wednesday, may swell once the exact count of bodies scattered across the ravaged towns is carried out, officials said.

Uttarakhand principal secretary Om Prakash said the death toll was 150, but an exact estimate of the fatalities can’t be given as several villages in the worst-hit Chamoli and Rudraprayag districts were still under water.

Military helicopters dropped emergency supplies to thousands of stranded tourists and pilgrims, nearly 20,000 of whom have been airlifted to safer places so far.

Though clear skies helped officials intensify rescue operations, home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde put the number of stranded people at 65,000.

Chief of Indo-Tibetan Border Police Ajay Chadha, which has pressed some 3,000 soldiers into the rescue effort, said, “things are quite unprecedented in Uttarakhand. The situation is grim and quite serious."

The devastation prompted the state government to announce cancellation of char dham pilgrimage for a year, the time chief minister Vijay Bahuguna believes it will take to restore normalcy on the road to Kedarnath shrine. 

Air force choppers also evacuated stranded people in rain-ravaged Kinnaur district and adjoining Kaza area of Spiti in Himachal Pradesh on the second day of rescue operations on Wednesday.

At least 28 people have also died in Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.    

Reports suggested Kedarnath shrine, where 50 people died in the landslide that accompanied torrential rains and flash floods, is intact notwithstanding the heavy damage all around.

"The Kedarnath temple is submerged in mud and slush. We just hope that it does not collapse," said Uttarakhand disaster relief minister Yashpal Arya.

With no rains in the last two days, there were no fresh incidents of landslides and flooding.

Accompanied by Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made an aerial survey of the worst-hit areas while union home secretary RK Singh also undertook a similar mission separately.

Meanwhile, home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde told reporters in New Delhi, “We are committed to rescuing everyone now that the rains have stopped."

While BJP demanded that Uttarakhand disaster shall be declared as a national calamity, the state government drew flak for allowing tourists and pilgrims despite the early arrival of monsoon rains.

Nilabja Ghosh, an economist working on climate change and agricultural methods in Uttarakhand, said the weather office had not issued any early warnings about the heavy rains.

"If the weather office had issued an early warning then authorities would have had the time to restrict tourist movement and shift residents to safer zones," said Ghosh who works at the Institute of Economic Growth in New Delhi.

"Temples, houses and bridges cannot be protected during flash floods but lives can be saved if early warnings are put in place."


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