Dehradun, (Agencies and HTC): Close to 63,000 people remained stranded or cut off in rain-ravaged Uttarakhand on Wednesday as the toll touched 150 and the rain finally let up after three days, helping authorities step up rescue and relief operations.
However, with 400-odd roads and 21 bridges washed away and vast swathes of land under water, it remained an uphill task.
The number of dead in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh – where many rivers are in spate – stood at 18 and in Himachal Pradesh at 14, according to reports.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a Rs. 1,000-crore relief packagefor Uttarakhand after an aerial survey of disaster-hit areas along with UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi.
The PM announced ex-gratia assistance of Rs. 2 lakh each to the families of the dead and Rs. 50,000 to the injured. In addition, Rs. 1 lakh would be given to those whose houses were destroyed and Rs. 50,000 to those whose houses were damaged. Help also poured in from other states such as UP, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Delhi.
Gandhi, on her part, asked the chief ministers of the hill states to expedite relief work and restore power and communication. She plans to visit affected areas and relief camps shortly once again, Congress leader Ajay Maken said.
Chief minister Vijay Bahuguna said the famous Kedarnath shrine was safe but “under a lot of slush and will remain out of bounds for one year”.
Around 26 choppers were pressed into service and the army, air force, police, ITBP, National Disaster Relief Force and Sasastra Seema Bal managed to evacuate several thousand people – including cricketer Harbhajan Singh – across the state, an official said.
He added that the majority of those stranded in worst-hit Kedarnath valley have been moved to safety. Most of those evacuated were out-of-state pilgrims doing the famous Char Dham religious circuit.
Bhaskaranand Joshi, disaster management secretary, said there was “no trace of life in Rambada”, a village in the Kedarnath valley.
The railways announced special trains to cater to the rush at Haridwar and Rishikesh.
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.”