Even after two weeks of rescue operations uncertainty prevails over the number of casualties and people still stuck in what is described as the worst natural disaster that has ever struck the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. The Chief Minister of the mountainous state, Vijay Bahuguna, says that the exact number of deaths in the calamity will never be known as estimates of the actual casualties vary from hundreds to several thousands.
One senior official claims that the death toll could exceed 10,000. According to state officials, 3,000 people are still missing from the region.
Most of the victims identified so far have been outsiders who were on the Char Dham Yatra pilgrimage to Uttarkhand’s shrines of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamnotri, which takes place between May and November. This is one of the reasons that the tragedy in the tiny state has impacted the whole nation.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
During peak season every year hordes of pilgrims come from across India and abroad to visit hilly pilgrimage centers accessible only by small roads, which believers travel with the help of mules. For Hindus, the journey to the four shrines carries a similar level of importance as Haj does for Muslims.
The inaccessibility of the terrain and breakdown in communication made it difficult to assess the enormity of the damage in the first few days after incessant rain started on June 16. Subsequent cloudbursts wiped out town after town and ravaged hundreds of villages.
Describing the magnitude of the problem, the CNN-IBN correspondent Karma Palijor, who has been reporting from the area for almost two weeks, told The Diplomat that “India has never seen this kind of tragedy. It’s worse than the tsunami (of 2004). The tsunami killed many, but it came and was gone. Here, the bigger challenge has come after the devastation with the rescue operation; to bring people stranded in the middle of nowhere to a safer zone.”
He added, “The problem got compounded due to a lack of any standard operating procedure in place, due to a lack of any planning about how to deal with such a tragedy. The government panicked initially when it saw the magnitude of the devastation.”
Reports coming from the state narrate the bone chilling stories of eye witness accounts, detailing three days of unprecedented devastation that claimed an untold number of lives.
At the center of the hardest hit area was the temple town of Kedarnath, 11,000 feet above sea level. News reports suggest that at least 10,000 to 12,000 people visit the hilly town every day during the peak pilgrimage season.
The latest figures released by the Uttarakhand government indicated that 2,375 villages were affected by floods and landslides, of which 739 are still cut off, but are receiving relief supplies.
Based on first-hand information, Palijor said that hundreds of villages lying on both sides of the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers have been all but washed off the map, with little hope of rehabilitation.
It will take between weeks and months until rescue operations are completed, and years before the state can be rebuilt.
Uttarakhand has been at the receiving end of nature’s fury in recent years. In 2008-2009, the state experienced severe drought. And in 2010, people grappled with floods, flash floods, landslides and cloudbursts.
But the severity of the tragedy hitting the state this time has raised some very valid questions: How much of the devastation is the result of climate change? And to what it extent was it induced by unplanned development by the state?
Indrajit Bose of the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based environmental think tank, told The Diplomat, “The devastation is the combined result of man’s folly and nature’s fury. Because of the way development has been going on in the state, this disaster was just waiting to happen. You cannot change the course of the two important rivers – Bhagirathi and Alaknanda – and expect nature to accept this tampering.”
Pointing to the state’s draft plan on climate change, Bose underlines the draft’s finding that “Uttarakhand is most vulnerable to climate-mediated risks.”
In short, the indiscriminate increase in tourism wreaked havoc on the environmentally vulnerable state.
According to the 2011 census, Uttarakhand’s population was 10.8 million. The state hosted 20.68 million pilgrims and tourists in 2010-2011. Since then, the four pilgrimage centers saw a fourfold increase in the number of pilgrims as year-round access to the shrines – previously restricted to four months – was allowed.
News magazine Tehelka writes that, according to the state official in charge of monitoring vehicles, around 100,000 vehicles – 50-60 percent of them not state-owned – visit the pilgrimage centers three times each year. Further, since 2005-2006, the number of registered taxis and jeeps in the state has jumped tenfold. Meanwhile, since 2010, the state has built an additional 4,500 km of road, and has nearly tripled its total road length in the past decade.
Taking a cue from the recent tragedy, on Monday the state government announced that construction will no longer be allowed on the state’s river banks. Further, CM Bahuguna announced the establishment of a state Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Authority, which will draft plans to rebuild and develop the flood-hit areas of the state.
But before rehabilitation starts the greater challenge for the state and the Indian government is finding the missing persons who number in the thousands.
The tragic floods of Uttarakhand are a warning to all hilly states in India to stop playing with nature in the name of economic development.
New Delhi, India
The flash floods triggered by very heavy rainfall and cloudburst in Uttarakhand on 16-17 June 2013, affected 12 out of the 13 districts in Uttarakhand. The 4 districts that were worst affected were Rudraprayag, Chamoli, Uttarkashi and Pithoragarh.
The deluge has washed away roads, bridges and other infrastructure. So far about 1000 deaths are reported and many are still reported missing. In Kedarnath alone about 75,000 pilgrims had been stranded due to landslides and flash floods.
In view of the devastating impact of the heavy rain fall in the state of Uttarakhand, Secretary General, Indian Red Cross Society (IRCS) held a meeting on 18th June 2013 in his office with the senior officials from IRCS NHQ, IFRC and ICRC.The Indian Red Cross Society (National Head quarters) mounted an immediate response to the disaster by deploying relief and assessment teams to Dehradun, Uttarkashi, Rishikesh, Pithoragarh and Rudraprayag. Shri Gulam Nabi Azad, Hon’ble Chairman, IRCS (The Minister of Health and Family Welfare) flagged off the trucks carrying relief materials for the flood affected victims on 21st of June 2013.
Relief materials in the form of Non food items has been despatched to the Uttarakhand state branch by road for further distribution to the affected areas. Till date more than INR 2.2 crores worth of relief items has been sent.
Indian Red Cross responds to the Uttarakhand disaster
The Indian Red Cross responded to the Uttarakhand disaster by mobilising the National disaster response team (NDRT), Regional disaster response team (RDRT) and National disaster watsan response team (NDWRT) members who were alerted for possible deployment. The National headquarters despatched a two member team to Uttarakhand on the 19th June 2013 for carrying out assessment of the needs of the community in coordination with the officials of the Uttarakhand state Red Cross branch and to follow it with the organisation of relief work.
The General Secretary, Uttarakhand State Red Cross branch activated the Certified First Medical Responders (CFMRs) at the various districts of Uttarakhand. There are 151 trainers and more than 4500 CFMRs who are trained in First aid, psychosocial support, search and rescue, dead body management, PhiE etc with the Uttarakhand Red Cross state branch. A meeting with 30 CFMRs was held at Dehradun on the 19th June 2013.
The team deployed at Dehradun established contact with FMRs and Patwaris in these affected Districts and the FMRs prepared lists of people who were stranded in their region. The list had details about the place they were stranded in, the contact person they wanted to inform their whereabouts, a message they wished to convey, phone number etc. Around 50 such messages were delivered about these stranded people to their families that were waiting for information about their loved ones. A tracing request from Tamil Nadu was received regarding a group of pilgrims, their location was found out and medical assistance was organised for them. A meeting was held in state branch where around 30 volunteers participated who committed their time for relief operation activities. The NDRT team reached Uttarkashi on 21st June 2013 and met the 30 FMRs working since the day of disaster.
A high level team from the IFRC and National Headquarters consisting of the Head, IFRC; Deputy secretary, IRCS, NHQ and Advisor (DM) has also visited Uttarakhand for an on the spot analysis of the situation. IRCS is in close coordination with the Director (EMR), Ministry of Health and Family Welfare for any requirement that may need to be addressed. On request, IRCS despatched 1600 body bags to Dehradun.
Relief materials in the form of 1050 Family tents (to accomodate upto 8 persons each), family packs (including kitchen sets, clothings, buckets etc.), stoves, lanterns and tarpaulins etc. worth INR 2,21,99,300 have been despatched to Uttarakhand.
A Red Cross camp has been set up near Vikas bhawan in Joshiyara, Uttarkashi. 40 tents have been erected and 24 families are at the camp presently. 35-40 CFMRs are working at Uttarkashi. Further as reported by the state branch FMR and Red Cross life members gave first aid, navigation assistance, medicines, etc to 1720 people. Assessment to document impact of floods on the local population is underway.
Another team of two National Disaster relief team members of the IRCS (NHQ) has been deployed at Pithoragarh on the request of the Secretary, Uttarakhand State RC Branch. The team went to BALWAKOT, NAYABASTHI, DARCHULA, GHOTI after walking for 5 – 8 km.The people are living in tents, administration is providing them ration. No major health issue has been reported. 5 FMRs are working in temporary shelters here since 17th June. Around 3000 people have been evacuated to safer places by ITBP. Mobile health unit has been set up by the government and Red Cross hospital at Balwakot is also functioning. A ’Restoring family links’ expert has reached Rudraprayag along with the NDWRT expert for assessment of needs and coordination in relief measures.
Daily review meetings are being held by the Secretary General in the control room set up at National Headquarters.