People sleeping on the banks of the Mandakini river missing; the administration says they were prevented from sleeping here several times
Three people have been killed and 17 others are missing after a landslide triggered by heavy rains hit Gaurikund, an important stop on the Kedarnath yatra route in Uttarakhand, on the night of August 3, 2023.
The debris rolled down the mountainside after heavy rains late on the night of August 3. It enveloped two roadside shops and a dhaba (eatery) before falling into the strong currents of the Mandakini river below. Some 20 people sleeping in the shop went missing.
Late at night, other teams including those from the district administration, local police, State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) reached the spot.
Three bodies could be found till late August 4 night. The rescue operation continued on August 5 to search for the missing people. These included four locals and 16 people of Nepalese origin.
The incident is reminiscent of the Kedarnath disaster of 2013. Then, hundreds of pilgrims were killed in Gaurikund.
The Char Dham roads, popularly known as ‘all-weather roads’, have made movement easy. But incidents of extremely intense rains and landslides continue to increase the risk of the yatra.
Thousands of pilgrims are arriving at the ‘Char Dham’ — the Hindu pilgrimage sites of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath — and the Sikh religious site of Hemkund Sahib even amid weather warnings.
On August 4, there were 2,353 pilgrims in Badrinath, 392 in Hemkund, 492 in Kedarnath, 783 in Gangotri and 958 in Yamunotri.
On August 3, a total of 2,438 people had visited Badrinath while 6,211 pilgrims were in Kedarnath. Along with the other two sites, the numbers reached a total of 10,377.
So far, 3,642,522 pilgrims have visited the Char Dham since the opening of the shrines’ doors. In the last one week, more than 33,000 pilgrims have visited.
According to the State Emergency Operation Centre, 35 people have died and 31 have been injured due to natural calamities in the state since June 15. At least 43 people have lost their lives and 149 have been injured in road accidents during the rains.
In fact, there is a need to look at these number of pilgrims and intense weather events like Gaurikund together and assess the level of risk. An early warning system is very important in such a situation.
“The disaster management department has prepared an early warning system in Kedarnath. But it remains to be seen whether it is working in Gaurikund or not,” Jitendra Verma, subdivisional magistrate in Rudraprayag, told this reporter.
He gave an example, “During the rainy season, information about the rise in rivers’ water levels is given at the state level through SMS (mass messaging) or social media handles through sensors installed near bridges. Information is given on the Twitter handles of Police, NDRF, SDRF. Police and disaster management vehicles patrol the banks of rivers so that people can be informed in case of an emergency. At present, there is no system of sending information through SMS to the pilgrims who have registered for the Chardham Yatra.”
Verma said tensions flare up often when passengers are not allowed to proceed to the shrines due to warnings issued for rain and snowfall. “In the event of heavy rains, when we stop passengers from travelling further, they are not ready to accept that and clash with the staff or the police team present there. Educated people do that.”
Why were people sleeping in shops on the roadside above the river? “People have been stopped several times,” Verma said. “Action has also been taken several times. But they don’t listen to us.”
Environmentalist Ravi Chopra told this reporter, “In view of disaster situations in the Himalayan region, careful long-term and short-term measures should be taken for safety. The Meteorological Department now gives three-four hours advance warning as well as three-four days advance warning about rain conditions. Disaster management posts at vulnerable locations should repeat and amplify these warnings locally through sirens or loudspeakers.”
“In long-term measures after every disaster, the government makes statements to move people away from river banks, but never acts on its own statements,” said Chopra.
“In the past, courts have also ordered people not to settle on the banks of the river. They need to be implemented seriously or the court should take suo motu cognizance and take action,” he added.
After the Gaurikund incident, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami once again directed that people living in buildings and kutcha houses built in sensitive places be shifted to safer places during the rainy season.
The Dehradun Meteorological Centre had issued a warning of intense to very heavy rainfall at isolated places for Rudraprayag on August 3 and 4. People and settlements living near the river and nullahs were advised to remain alert.
Anand Sharma, the retired head of the Meteorological Centre in the India Meteorological Department, believes that negligence is responsible for Gaurikund or many such accidents, not heavy rains.
“It is normal to experience intense rains in the Himalayan region. But why are people living in places prone to landslides and floods near the river and why does the administration allow them to settle there? And did the weather department’s warning reach people sleeping in shops above the Mandakini river?” he asked.
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