GOVINDGHAT, India – Soldiers worked on rocky gorges and rugged riverbanks Saturday trying to evacuate tens of thousands of people still stranded by monsoon flooding and landslides that killed nearly 600 people in northern India’s Himalayas.
With bad weather and heavy rainfall predicted over the next two days, there was an added urgency to reach the approximately 22,000 people still stranded in the flood-hit Uttarakhand state, federal Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said.
Since helicopters could rescue only small groups of people at a time, army troops Saturday opened up another road route to the Hindu temple town of Kedarnath, worst affected by the floods that hit the mountainous region nearly a week ago.
Soldiers created rudimentary bridges by stringing rope across rocky riverbanks and gouged earth, enabling safe passage for civilians in areas where bridges and roads were swept away by the floods or blocked by debris and boulders.
Shinde said air force helicopters were dropping food and drinking water to those stranded in inaccessible areas.
Uttarakhand state spokesman Amit Chandola said late Saturday that more than 80,000 people have been rescued from the worst-hit districts by air and road since the rescue operations began.
At least 7,000 people were air-lifted by air force and privately-owned helicopters and transported to Uttarakhand’s capital, Dehradun, on Saturday, he said.
Food, water and medicines were being supplied to the numerous relief camps that had been set up for the people rescued from the mountains until arrangements were made for the tourists to return home. Officials were also drawing up lists of local residents whose homes have been flattened to arrange compensation.
Officials say the death toll was expected to rise as troops reach remote hillside villages where flash floods washed away homes and boulders hurtled down on the fleeing villagers.
Around 10,000 army and paramilitary troops, members of India’s disaster management agency and volunteers were involved in the rescue and relief efforts, Shinde said.
Uttarakhand state Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna said Friday that 556 bodies were buried deep in slush caused by the landslides. Another 40 were found floating in the Ganges River.
Thousands of homes have been washed away or damaged in the state.
People across India are collecting clothes, blankets and tarpaulins and contributing money to help those left homeless in Uttarakhand.
Army engineers were rebuilding bridges and clearing roads to enable thousands of people to leave the region.
Uttarakhand is a popular summer vacation destination for hundreds of thousands of tourists seeking to escape the torrid heat of the plains. It is also a religious pilgrimage site with four temple towns located in the Garhwal Himalayan range.
The tourists usually head down to the plains before the monsoon breaks in July. But this year, early rains caught hundreds of thousands of tourists, pilgrims and local residents unaware.
Meteorological officials said the rains in Uttarakhand were the heaviest in nearly 80 years.
Google has launched an application, Person Finder, to help trace missing people in Uttarakhand. The version is available in both Hindi and English languages, according to a Google India blog.
Meanwhile, opposition parties and angry relatives in Uttarakhand accused the government of not doing enough to rescue people stranded in the temple towns.
Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party accused the government of callousness toward those affected by the flooding.
“It is very unfortunate that the government cannot coordinate the rescue efforts and provide timely help to the survivors of this calamity,” Naqvi told repoters.
Earlier Saturday, Shinde admitted that there had been gaps in the government’s rescue and relief efforts due to a lack of coordination between several disaster and welfare agencies in Uttarakhand.
Sri Devi, a tourist from neighboring Nepal, said she and her companions took shelter in a building in Govindghat, a small town on the road to the Sikh holy site of Hemkund, after their car was washed away. The 60-year-old woman was among a group of stranded tourists rescued from the town.
“It was raining boulders down the mountain and then a flood of water swept away everything. The road was washed away and we were stuck for four days without any food,” Devi said.
Monsoon flooding is an annual occurrence in India, causing enormous loss of life and property, and hundreds of people were missing and feared washed away in this week’s torrential monsoon downpours and flash floods in the tributaries of the Ganges River.