Although the CAG had pulled up the Uttarakhand govt, the callous administration did precious little to improve its level of preparedness with regard to disasters. The government was at sea as how to go about the rescue operations. Timely intervention could have saved scores of flood victims.
Ramkumar Sinha won't forget the tragedy that unfolded before his eyes. It was death and destruction all around. A religious person, who has seen visited Kedarnath any times in his life, had never seen something of this magnitude except in Hollywood films.
Even as he thanks his stars for sparing his family, his heart bleeds for thousands of pilgrims who could not make it. "It will never fade from my memory. I have seen dead bodies floating like logs of wood. I never thought me and my family would come out alive. The response of the government was pathetic. We walked about 40 km to reach Rishikesh from where we were airlifted to safety."
There were children, senior citizens with serious ailments and men in his group. Some youths were carrying their parents on their back as they could not walk. There were blind men who needed to be guided. On the way, they crossed forests, slippery terrains and dangerous hills. "Our determination and god's grace saved us. The Army did a commendable job. The civil administration flopped. The administration was dumbstruck," he added.
As the rains continue to lash the Himalayan state and impede the rescue work, the death toll Uttarakhand may cross the reported 1,000 mark. However, the exact figure may be available only after the debris is cleared.
Even as thousands of stranded pilgrims and tourists were rescued by Army and Air Force personnel, the insensitive response of the Uttarakhand government came in sharp focus and criticism. Survivors I met during my journey from Rishikesh to Rudraprayag and back by road recalled the callousness of the administration which should be blamed for tragedy of this scale. Although alerts were given by the Met department, the administration did not move an inch to make preparations for an eventuality. For the first two days, the civil administration did not respond at all.
The tragedy also exposed the centre's lack of preparedness of the National Disaster Management Authority under the Prime Minister in dealing with disasters of this magnitude. The agency did not have the technology, equipment or trained personnel to manage the disaster.
The civil administration did not make provision for providing food or medical aid to thousands of victims and many died due to lack of food and medicines. The entire stretch between Rishikesh and Rudraprayag is a tell-tale of devastation. Although not much heard in the narrative of the tragedy, the locals too faced losses. The silt gushed down by the ravaging Ganga filled the houses in the plains with muck which will take great effort to clean it up.
Environmentalists say it is a man-made disaster. Ecological imbalance brought about by large scale development work played a role in aggravating the impact. Hydel projects and dams are cited as reasons for the mammoth tragedy. Houses and commercial establishments built on riverbed flouting norms were swept away. Roads built by cutting through mountains washed away. Landslides changed the topography of the area. Towns such as Srinagar, Nandprayag, Karnaprayag, Kirtinagar and Chamoli and Rudraprayag were devastated.
Successive governments have given permission to ravage eco-fragile zones to set up big projects in the name of development. The road to Rudraprayag, like those in affected areas, was fraught with dangers as it was dotted with craters caused by landslides at many places. At some points, major part of the road got washed away. As we moved down at a snail's pace, precariously perched boulders on hilltops were looked like monsters who were about to pounce upon us. For the relatives of the dead as well as survivors, the horror of the fierce calamity has left them in psychological trauma. Many who were saved from the jaws death succumbed to various ailments as medical aid was not available. Many people were suffering from pneumonia, acute gastroenteri-tis, multiple fractures and kidney damage. Experts say a possible epidemic of air- and water-borne diseases due to decomposition of thousands of bodies lying around for over a week cannot be ruled out now.
"Most survivors who are visiting the medical camps are suffering from diabetes and hypertension. They are in bad shape due to discontinuation of their treatment and starvation. We are also getting a lot of patients suffering from pneumonia," said Dr Anuj Tripathi, emergency medical officer of Fortis Jessa Ram, who is currently posted at an Army medical camp near Joshimath.
Tripathi said that a number of patients, including the jawans involved in rescue operations, are seeking treatment even for psychological trauma. Max Super-specialty Hospital in Dehradun has been flooded with people seeking treatment for orthopaedic injuries.
Many people caught in the floods fought off starvation by eating leaves and fruits found locally.
Pankaj Sharma, a survivor, is angry at the lackadaisical attitude of the state government. He left for Char Dham yatra with ten members of his family on July 12. The group mostly included senior citizen, women and children.
"We were living like cattle in Gaurikund. People were openly defecating in the room. There was no food or water. We paid exorbitant prices for water and biscuits. The police were also hand in glove with locals in looting us. In many places, local police discouraged locals from giving food to hapless pilgrims."
Women who were safely brought back were also not sparing the government. "Although we were allowed to take a helicopter, men in our family had to walk down from Gaurikund. Government officials were forcing people to walk from the area. They say they do not have enough helicopters to ferry men also. Our male relatives were abandoned and told to fend for themselves," Rani, wife of Pankaj Sharma.
he Sharmas spent four days at a Gaurikund school. "We were living like cattle there. People were defecating in the same room. Some local shopkeepers helped us by bringing food. Some locals misbehaved with our women," said Pankaj.
Shakar Rao, a senior citizen from Hyderabad, came to Kedarnath along with his wife and a few friends. Although he and his wife were lucky to be saved, he saw the dance of death and destruction before his eyes. Some of the fellowtravellers were carried away by the river in spate. They were standing on the top of a building for almost one full day. Gaurishankar Saha walked for three days in pouring rain to reach Gaurikund. They spent time atop a hill where they had barely enough space to sit. "We sat there with our toes grabbing plants atop the hill lest we fell down." His nephew disappeared on the way. While all of his family members were still in Gaurikund, Gaurishankar was airlifted and dropped at Gochar. Looking forlorn, he said, "I would wait for the rest of my family members to arrive before I leave this place."
The administration has constructed two helipads at Fata and Gochar, where people were dropped after being airlifted from Gaurikund.
This charge was repeated by Rajiv Gupta of the All India Crime Reforms Organisation. "They have made no arrangements for us to distribute food," he alleged. However, volunteers of the RSS were seen stopping buses with survivors and providing them with food and basic first aid.
The senior members of the local administration were not available for comments despite three visits to the relevant offices.
On Saturday, a number of private vehicles were seen going up the road to Rudraprayag, along with buses from the state transport corporation. Additional helicopters were also plying.
Among other aspects of mismanagement by the government, a crucial one is the fact that there exists no record of those who have gone missing. Telephone services have been affected. Out of 739 telephone towers in the three disaster affected districts of Chamoli, Rudraprayag and Uttarkashi, 207 are currently non-functioning.