DEHRADUN/RISHIKESH, INDIA – Military helicopters carried out emergency food drops Wednesday for thousands of people stranded by flash flooding from early monsoon rains that have killed at least 120 in northern India, officials said.
The states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh have witnessed torrential rain at least three times as heavy as usual since last week, when the annual monsoon broke a fortnight ahead of schedule.
Thousands of houses have been swept away in the flash floods and authorities are using helicopters to evacuate people and drop essential food supplies. The Indian Air Force scrambled a dozen helicopters to reinforce a military-backed rescue mission in the worst-hit state of Uttarakhand, a spokesman said.
“Certain areas are still unaccessible to us,” he added, speaking from a control room in the state capital of Dehradun. Roads in many areas have been destroyed, leaving hundreds of pilgrims stranded on their way to visit shrines in remote areas.
Local officials in Dehradun said they were overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster.
“The situation is really very bad out there. More than 600 buildings have toppled or been swept away and there are 75,000 people, including pilgrims, stranded at various places,” disaster management official Piush Rautela said by telephone from Dehradun.
Jaspal Arya, disaster relief minister of Uttarakhand, said: “At least 110 people have died. The state government and the army are trying to rescue thousands of tourists who are stranded near the submerged valleys and Hindu shrines.”
He said portions of a Hindu temple were washed away Tuesday and about 10,000 pilgrims were stranded. “The Kedarnath temple is submerged in mud and slush. We just hope that it does not collapse,” Arya said.
Authorities have canceled pilgrimage trips, fearing further rain and landslides in the state, often referred to as the “Land of the Gods” because of its many Hindu temples and religious sites. The torrential rain began lashing the region Saturday and local officials said 40 relief camps have been set up to provide food and water to locals and tourists.
Officials in Uttarakhand said about 200 cars, two piles of earth-moving equipment and even a parked helicopter had been swept away by floods.
On Tuesday, 250 people were rescued by air force helicopters from different parts of Uttarakhand and many were moved to the relief camps. “But many are still stuck and it could take us three more days to rescue all of them, Arya added.
Uttarakhand Chief Secretary Subash Kumar said 21 bridges have collapsed in the state. “We have lost access to several villages across the state,” he said.
Television footage showed bridges, houses and multistory buildings crashing down and being washed away by the swirling waters. A giant statue of Lord Shiva could be seen submerged up to its head in the state’s tourist hub of Rishikesh.
In the neighboring state of Himachal Pradesh, flash floods destroyed more than 500 houses and government buildings and at least 10 people were killed in landslides. Around 1,500 people, including 150 foreign holidaymakers, were stranded in the state, which is a popular tourist destination.
Efforts were underway to try to reopen major roads to rescue those cut off by the rains, said J. M. Pathania, a top administrative official of the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh.
“Right now our priority is to save as many lives as possible and the scale of destruction will be assessed later,” a disaster management official said.
A military statement Tuesday said five air bases in northern India had been activated to speed up operations. “Indian Air Force helicopters carried out missions to airlift men, equipment, relief material medical aid,” it said.
Meanwhile, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke with officials in Uttarakhand and promised “all assistance in rescue and relief operations” in the stricken state, his office said.
“The prime minister shared the anguish and distress of the affected people of Uttarakhand,” it said. “He said that assistance was already being provided by the army and air force to rescue stranded people and to provide relief.
“The prime minister has also directed all agencies of the union government to assist in rescue and relief operations in the flood affected areas of the state,” it added.
The monsoon, which India’s farming sector depends on, envelopes the subcontinent from June to September, usually bringing some flooding. But the heavy rains arrived early this year, catching many by surprise and exposing the country’s lack of preparedness.
India has received 68 percent more rain than normal for this time of year, data from the India Meteorological Department show.