Indian minister attacks weather office as monsoon death toll nears 600
Updated 4 hours 51 minutes ago
Rescuers recovered scores of bodies from the Ganges river in northern India Friday, as the death toll from flash floods and landslides neared 600, with thousands of mainly pilgrims and tourists still stranded or missing.
Dozens of helicopters and thousands of soldiers have been deployed to rescue more than 35,000 trapped people, the home ministry said, almost one week after floods and landslides from torrential monsoon rains struck the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.
Raging rivers have swept away houses, buildings and entire villages, and destroyed bridges and narrow roads leading to pilgrimage towns in the mountainous state, which is known as the “Land of the Gods” for its revered Hindu shrines.
“556 bodies have been noticed by the army… either floating or buried in slush,” Vijay Bahuguna, state chief minister told local TV channel CNN-IBN on Friday evening.
Scores of bodies were recovered from the Ganges river earlier Friday, with the death toll expected to rise further as flood waters recede to reveal the extent of the devastation, and rescue workers reach more isolated areas.
“This kind of disaster has never happened in Himalayan history,” Mr Bahuguna said.
He attacked the India Meteorological Department for not issuing adequate warning ahead of the heavy rains, which struck earlier than expected, saying the local government was unable to prepare for the deluge and evacuate people on time.
The IMD warning was not clear enough,” he said, adding that it would take another 15 days to evacuate all the tourists.
Monsoon rains came weeks early
Torrential rains four and a half times heavier than usual have hit Uttarakhand – known as the “Land of the Gods” – where Hindu shrines and temples built high in the mountains attract many pilgrims.
“There are some 3,000 of us stuck in Gangotri [a pilgrimage site] for the past few days and there is no food, no drinking water or assurances from the government,” pilgrim Parwinder Singh said.
The military operation was focused on the worst-hit Kedarnath temple area, as families of the missing faced an anxious wait in Uttarakhand capital’s Dehradun.
Ganesh Godiyal, a chairman of a trust in charge of several shrines in Kednarth, says bodies are “scattered all around”.
“We estimate more than 1,000 people have died,” he said.
Some of those rescued told of scrambling to higher ground to escape raging waters, only to watch helplessly as buildings, cars and even dead bodies were swept away before them.
One of those stranded was Indian cricket star Harbhajan Singh, who was attempting to reach a Sikh pilgrimage site but had to take refuge in a police station.
“Some people are saying that we’re stuck but I wouldn’t say that we’re stuck, I’d say we’ve been saved by God,” said the spin bowler, who was later flown out of the flood-hit area by military chopper.
“With the kind of rainstorm we witnessed, anything could have happened. Many people lost their lives,” the cricketer said.
Figures for the death toll have varied considerably, underscoring the difficulty of reaching isolated areas. An Uttarakhand state lawmaker, Shaila Rani Rawat, put the death toll at 2,000, but disaster management officials could not confirm this.
Nearly 10,000 soldiers, along with 13 teams from the National Disaster Response Force, have been deployed for the rescue and relief effort, the government said.
Indian paramilitary officers have been building rope and log bridges across raging rivers to try to reach those stranded.
Relief camps have been set up to house evacuated residents and tourists, and 22 helicopters are ferrying many of those rescued to the camps.
The air force and the government say 14 tonnes of food and relief aid has been dropped in remote areas.
The monsoon, which covers the subcontinent from June to September, usually brings some flooding but the heavy rains arrived early this year, catching many by surprise and exposing the country’s lack of preparedness.