India battles to rescue flood survivors

Floods triggered by rains in north of country have left 120 dead, besides stranding thousands of Hindu pilgrims.

Monsoon flooding in northern India has claimed more than 120 lives, stranding thousands of people due to high water levels and landslides, officials say.

Torrential rain and landslides since Sunday have stranded pilgrims at four revered Hindu shrines, washed away bridges and roads and caused other damage in Uttrakhand province.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said after returning from an aerial survey on Wednesday that the death toll there was 102.

“It is feared that the loss of life could be much higher,” he said.

An additional 17 people died in collapsed homes in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh state, said RL Vishwakarma, a provincial police officer.

The annual monsoon rains sustain India’s agriculture but also cause flooding that claims lives and damages property.

The latest rains have affected several states and the capital, New Delhi, where nearly 2,000 people have been evacuated to government-run camps on higher ground. Authorities there said the Yamuna River was expected to start receding by Thursday afternoon.

After Singh’s comments, Uttrakhand’s Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna told the NDTV news channel that hundreds of people had lost their lives but that the exact number would be known only after a survey.

A joint army and air force operation has evacuated nearly 12,000 Hindu pilgrims stranded in the area but nearly 63,000 people remained cut off, according to Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde.

A three-storey apartment building toppled into a river and was carried away by the flood waters, said Amit Chandola, a Uttrakhand government spokesman, adding that a helicopter on its landing pad also was swept away.

The government also said 40 small hotels on the banks of the Mandakini river in the Gaurikund area were destroyed.

Describing the situation as grim, Bahuguna said his administration was not equipped to tackle such a massive disaster, and asked for federal assistance. The region is 400km southwest of Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh province.

Hindu pilgrims stranded

Most of those stranded in Uttrakhand are Hindu pilgrims to four revered shrines. Bahuguna said the Kedarnath temple – one of the holiest Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, located atop the Garhwal Himalayan range – had escaped major damage, but up to 10 feet of debris covered the area around it.

“We are fully engaged in rescuing people who have been stranded in the higher reaches,” Bahuguna told reporters earlier. Nearly 600 people were evacuated by air force helicopters and the rest by the army using land routes.

Air force spokeswoman Priya Joshi said 22 helicopters had dropped food packets and other relief supplies in addition to ferrying stranded tourists.

More than 5,000 soldiers helped bring thousands of homeless people to relief camps and provided them with food and medical supplies.

The Indian meteorological department says that it is sticking to its forecast of average rain during the four-month monsoon period.

The rains usually cover all of India by mid-July, but this year they did so by June 16, the earliest such occurrence on record, a senior official at the department said.

Source: News Agencies