Congress downplays Rahul's absence from Uttarakhand

New Delhi, June 21 (IANS) The Congress Friday downplayed the absence of party vice president Rahul Gandhi when a major tragedy has struck Uttarakhand and said the party's top leadership, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and chief Sonia Gandhi, were monitoring the rescue and relief operations in the flood-hit hill state.

"It should not matter who has gone (to flood-hit areas) and who has not. The focus should be on rescue and relief operations. Both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and party chief Sonia Gandhi are monitoring the situation. VIP visits hamper relief operations. Sonia Gandhi has not visited Uttarakhand keeping this in mind. She will visit as soon as the situation improves," Congress spokesperson Raj Babbar told reporters when asked about Rahul Gandhi's absence when both the party and the government are busy battling the massive tragedy.

Both the prime minister and Sonia Gandhi had conducted an aerial survey of the flood-hit areas of Uttarakhand Wednesday.

Rahul Gandhi is reportedly out of the country.

Babbar said Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde would visit the flood-hit areas Saturday. "The entire focus is on rescue and relief operations before the weather worsens," Babbar added.

"Sonia Gandhi has asked all Congress MPs to donate Rs.10 lakh each from their development fund for relief measures for Uttarakhand. This needs the permission of the Lok Sabha speaker Meira Kumar," Babbar said, adding "party legislators will donate a month's salary towards relief fund".

Sonia Gandhi has also asked the Congress Seva Dal to set up two relief camps in Dehradun to coordinate the relief material coming from party units in various states.

The met department has predicted heavy rains in the hill state June 23 onwards, which could impact the ongoing relief operations.

However, while focussing on the rescue and relief operations, the Congress spokesperson said the party would "ask questions and find out" if there were any lapses by the state government in responding to the met department's warnings of heavy rains there.

He added that keeping in mind that the region received around 375 percent more rainfall than the average, any disaster management system would have failed to cope with the massive tragedy.

Some 50,000 people are still stranded in the calamity-hit areas of Uttarakhand. The death toll so far is 207 "but more people could be buried in the debris", Shinde said Friday.

More than 34,000 people have been rescued from Uttarakhand so far, he said.

Thousands are said to be missing in the state after unprecedented rains and cloudbursts led to landslides and flash floods.

Shinde said that according to a preliminary report, two cloud bursts in the area started the disaster.

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