The unprecedented disaster beginning in the Central Himalayas and eventually affecting the plains too, began around mid June with incessant heavy rain which made rivers swell rapidly and forcefully erode chunks of river banks, some with entire houses collapsing into the waters. Even some villages got completely inundated. A lot of added destruction was caused by huge landslides. And what is infuriating about this tragedy is that it happened owing to callous disregard by state government for ecology like allowing buildings to be built till the edges of river-banks. Once disaster struck widely, it was mainly Indian Army, Air Force, ITBP and National Disaster Response Force teams that got into action. Some affected people too helped whichever way they could. One Mi-17 V5 on a rescue mission from Gauchar to Guptkashi and Kedarnath crashed north of Gaurikund, while returning from Kedarnath. Eight persons onboard, including five crew members, suffered fatal injuries in the mishap. News reports towards end of June further reflected the apathy of central and state governments making tall claims of implementing relief and haggling over fatal casualty figures, which included tourists, pilgrims and local residents.
Indian Air Force helicopters, on stand-by since 16 June 2013 in response to requests by the district administration for relief and rescue missions, were pressed into service on 17 Jun 2013. Mi17, Mi17 V5 and Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) on standby at over five Air Force stations over three states for prompt missions, airlifted men, equipment, relief material medical aid and began a relentless series of dawn to dusk sorties in very daunting weather and terrain conditions, stretching to two weeks.
Operation Ganga Prahar was launched with more than 5000 Army men fanning out across Chamoli, Rudraprayag, Uttarkashi and Pithoragarh districts in Uttarakhand and Saharanpur, Bijnor, Muzaffarnagar and Pilibhit districts of Uttar Pradesh in order to rescue and provide relief to stranded civil population affected by unprecedented floods. Army assistance centres at Harsil, Rudraprayag, Joshimath, Mana, Gagriya, Govindghat and Dharchula have been providing shelter, food, first aid and fresh water to hundreds of pilgrims stranded at various locations due to torrential rain and swollen rivers. Eight quick reaction medical teams established medical aid posts at a number of locations and four ambulance vehicles have been deployed to evacuate injured people.
In Uttarakhand, Army undertook rescue and relief operations in four sectors at Harsil, Kedarnath, Joshimath and Dharchula. An Army column evacuated 600 people across a rivulet by laying a temporary bridge of wooden logs. All the people were brought to safety. Two officers and 24 soldiers were inducted by helicopter into Sirsi near Gauri Kund, 17 km short of Kedarnath. In Joshimath sector, with NH-58 washed away at Govindghat, more than 2000 were evacuated on foot and housed in Joshimath, with 1100 in Army shelters. Efforts were underway to lay a cable bridge across Alaknanda to evacuate stranded Hemkund Sahib pilgrims, of which over 450 were evacuated initially. Hundreds of people were evacuated from low lying areas of Dharchula and adjoining areas flooded by swollen Kali River. Army columns continued the process of evacuating marooned villagers at Rawli ,8 km west of Bijnor, with one Army relief column evacuating stranded people from Shamili and Daulatpur areas of Saharanpur district.
Two Army columns and Border Roads personnel cleared the road up to 30 kms South of Dharasu on Rishikesh – Uttarkashi road. 200 people of Tharali village, 5 kms North of Harsil were evacuated and brought to safety. Army launched a coordinated effort to first ensure safety of people and assist local administration in creating capability to sustain efforts in helping the people. Humanitarian assistance in terms of food, shelter, warm clothing and medical aid was provided across the regions. Surya Medical Emergency Helpline was of immense help to stranded pilgrims as more than 500 calls were received in 24 hours.
By June 19, 2013, it became one of the largest operations by the Army and the Air Force in several decades, to provide massive rescue and relief operations in the flood and landslide affected areas of Uttrakhand and Himachal Pradesh while the Border Roads Organisation deployed 3000 of its personnel and equipment, working for various projects, to clear the roads and to rescue the stranded people.
IAF’s C 130J aircraft was launched for reconnaissance missions as a part of ‘Op Rahat’ besides deploying 20 aircraft which included eight Mi 17, ten ALH, one An-32 and one – Avro to carry out constant missions from first light till sunset. The C 130 J on recce mission flew over flood affected areas in Dehradun – Uttarkashi, Kedarnath and Joshimath to track the critical and facilitate further relief operations. About 1000 persons were evacuated by the helicopters who carried NDRF teams and dropped 9000 kg of relief material since 18 June , covering Phata, Guptkashi, Gaurikund, Kedarnath in Dehradun and Rampur, Karcham, Rincompeo and Sangla in Himachal. A Bareilly-based ALH rescued about 50 marooned villagers in the foothills using winch equipment. Four ALHs of the Sarang Display Team were also deployed for relief operations. One AN-32 aircraft from Agra landed at Jolly Grant air field carrying 10 NDRF personnel and three tonnes of tents and other essential items.
Army commenced Operation ‘Surya Hope’ for providing succor, hope, humanitarian assistance and logistic needs in Badrinath, Hemkund and Kedarnath regions. In the first phase, Army teams carried out reconnaissance of area and air evacuation of isolated pockets along Govindghat-Badrinath road and Ghagriya-Hemkund track on 19 June and concentrated on isolated people at Badrinath and Ghagriya by 20 June. Focused air evacuation then commenced from both the places from 21 June onwards. In the second phase, Army covered the Kedarnath region. Reconnaissance of the area was undertaken and the troops were concentrated at Sonprayag and Kedarnath. All isolated people were attempted to be reached at Sonprayag and Kedarnath on 21 June and air evacuation commenced from 22 June onwards. In both Badrinath and Kedarnath sectors Army inducted soldiers by helicopters who deployed every 2 kms all along the roads to enable them to contact isolated people. Soldiers in place by 20 June, provided leadership, succor, medical aid and engineer effort. Army initially inducted 12 medical teams and opened an emergency medical helpline. Beside 600 stranded civilians were given access to Army communications to facilitate them to contact their families.
The Army’s strength was eventually raised to over 8000 troops, including Special Forces and by 20 June there were 15 Army helicopters augmenting the air effort. Army initially evacuated 1610 civilians in Uttarkashi district and provided shelter, food and medical aid to 1300 people. In the Joshimath sector 3034 civilians have been evacuated to Joshimath so far and provided shelter, food and warm clothing to 1276 people. In Kedarnath region, Army was able to establish contact and distribute food packets to 250 people at isolated places.
At that stage, more than 2800 people were still stranded in Harsil – Gangotri area, and approximately 5500 in Kedarnath valley, 2500 in Hemkund and about 15,000 in Badrinath axis. Army on 19 June also evacuated 1550 people from Govindghat, inserted four more medical teams on Badrinath and Hemkund axis, distributed more than 5000 food packets in Govindghat, Pandukeshwar, isolated locations in Badrinath and Kedarnath regions. Army doctors treated 300 people in Joshimath, 150 in Harsil, and 70 in Rudraprayag. Army teams repaired the mini hydel project in Harsil and power is likely to be restored in the area shortly. After clearing eight land slide sites in two days, Army cleared Narendranagar- Uttarkashi road upto 40 kms south of Dharasu. On receiving information about 50-60 persons stranded isolated on Pindari Glacier and 12 on Sunder Dunga Glacier in Kumaon region, an Army column led by two officers and 77 soldiers reached Kapkot in Bageshwar district by morning of 21 June and rescued 11 members and 43 porters of a mountaineering expedition from Arva Tal on Gangotri – Mana axis.
Lt Gen Anil Chait, GOC-in-C, Central Command along with core team of officers moved into the forward area of Uttarkhand to personally take stock of the situation, coordinate and ensure relief and rescue operations. Border Roads Organisation (BRO) diverted its equipment and personnel from Projects Shivalik, Deepak and Hirak for clearing roads and rescuing the affected people. All bulldozers, jcbs, excavators, compressors and other platforms have been deployed for the rescue and restoration work.
By 29 June 2013, IAF’s ‘Op Rahat’ amounted to 26 aircraft airlifting the last 12 pilgrims from Harsil, 842 pilgrims from Badrinath and continued its operations in the sector for the next two days. On 29 Jun 2013 IAF evacuated 1177 persons flying 126 sorties. From 17 to 29 June 2013, the IAF has airlifted a total of 17,675 persons, flying a total of 2,044 sorties, dropping/ landing a total of 3,24,930 kgs of relief material and equipment.
Both Army and Air Chiefs assured assistance till the last of marooned are rescued. While space does not permit many more details, the next massive task is multi-faceted rehabilitation and compensation of people who lost everything, at a fast pace, for which many promises are being made by politicians.
The author is the Associate Editor of Salute