We have a window of just 48 hours to complete rescue operations as more rain is forecast, says Air Marshal S.B. Deo

Five days after devastating floods and landslides struck Uttarakhand, the UPA government is finally tackling the unprecedented disaster on a war footing, even though it is still shying away from declaring it a national calamity.

On Friday evening, Cabinet Secretary Ajit Seth told the Crisis Management Team (CMT) — consisting of top civilian and military officials — that the government now just had 48 hours left in which to evacuate those stranded, as a fresh spell of rains is expected from June 23, something that will make the already difficult task of the rescue teams even harder.

Meanwhile, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna, who gave the updated death toll, said that 556 bodies have been recovered from under the debris so far and more could be buried. Some 40 bodies were found floating along the Ganga.

Over 30,000 people are still stranded.

Air Marshal S. B. Deo, who is overseeing the IAF relief operations that began on June 17, said, “The Cabinet Secretary told us that we have a window of just 48 hours to complete most of the rescue operations as inclement weather is expected.” But when asked whether he expected the various agencies involved in search and rescue operations would complete their task by Sunday, he said, “We are working flat out. We won’t leave anyone behind.”

Air Marshal Deo addressed a press conference late on Friday evening, along with Major General S. L. Narasimhan and representatives of the Indian Army, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Border Roads Organisation and the National Disaster Response Force: all of them, after giving a factual account of the progress made thus far, expressed confidence — and determination — to complete as much as was possible, despite the challenges.

Thus far, 50, 000 persons have been rescued by either land or air by the 8,000 personnel of the various agencies (this does not include those from the IAF), Principal Director General, Press Information Bureau, Neelam Kapur said, adding “Currently, 55 helicopters are involved in what is probably one of the largest operations in very difficult terrain.”

If the focus has been on the tourists and pilgrims, food, water and other necessities are simultaneously being provided to the locals whose homes have been devastated. Government sources said many of the locals did not wish to move too far from their homes — so they are being relocated to camps in safer areas.

In many cases, government sources said, those being rescued were refusing to leave without finding/carrying the dead bodies of their loved ones, leading to heart rending sights. But the government’s first objective — given the enormity of the numbers — was first to rescue the living. In other cases, people had climbed up hillsides to escape the floodwaters, but helicopters have not been able to land in such places, and with communication lines down things have been hard. On Friday, additional helicopter pads in the more difficult areas were constructed

Nevertheless, as General Narasimhan pointed out, army paratroopers, equipped with mountaineering equipment, have managed to get down into the gorges and ravines to rescue people. The BRO has managed to open up many of the roads that were blocked or breached by landslides, and has built rope bridges, including one over the now turbulent waters of the Alaknanda. The BRO is also opening up walking tracks and encouraging the able-bodied to use those to reach the main roads from where they can be ferried to safety.

This is because the priority is to rescue the disabled, the elderly, children and the women first.

Free train service

The railways have pressed into service free trains for stranded tourists. The petroleum ministry is providing fuel for the helicopter sorties, and the communications ministry is engaged in restoring phone lines. It is now a case of all hands on deck, after the initial tardy response of the State Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna, as the number of those affected after the final count comes in could be in the thousands.