Uttarakhand sets up rehab agency, rescue in final stages

Dehradun, July 1 (IANS) Over a fortnight after floods and landslides ravaged it, Uttarakhand Monday set up a reconstruction and rehabilitation authority to oversee relief work in the state, while Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna put the deaths in the calamity at 882 and said 3,068 people were missing.

Bahuguna announced setting up of the Uttarakhand Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Authority at a press conference with union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh by his side.

Rescue efforts in the state were also nearing completion. The authorities began evacuating around 1,500 people, including locals, who are still stranded at Badrinath, Maneri and Harsil, but heavy rain and fog held up the operations at many places.

Around 300 pilgrims stranded in Chamoli district and over 600 people at Badrinath shrine were ferried by choppers to Joshimath. Around 500 people are still stranded at Badrinath. The army and the air force flew over 50 sorties to evacuate stranded people to safer areas.

Rescue operations were hampered in Dharasu due to bad weather, while in Gauchar, the air force flew 26 sorties and evacuated 243 people from Badrinath to Joshimath. Operations were affected after noon due to bad weather, said officials.

In a far-reaching decision, the chief minister said no permission would be given henceforth for construction along river banks. Thousands of dwellings and buildings along river banks have been washed away or destroyed in the floods.

He also said that children in areas hit by the floods would be given Rs.500 and college students Rs.1,000 each as intermediate relief. The chief minister announced that water and power bills for flood-affected people would be waived.

The authorities are now confronted with the mammoth task of clearing up the debris, searching for bodies and disposing them of properly.

The chief minister announced that a team of 200 people, including officials from the police, health, animal husbandry experts and sanitation, are being rushed to Kedarnath to collect DNA samples of bodies.

Various state governments have been asked to verify the list of missing people and if they are not traced in a month, they will be declared dead.

The Congress gave a clean chit to Bahuguna who has been facing flak for "ignoring" the advance warnings of very heavy rains by the meteorological department, saying it was satisfied with the state government's rescue and relief work.

"The Congress is satisfied with the way the state government is functioning," Congress communications department chief Ajay Maken told reporters in New Delhi when asked about the party's view on the advance warning available with the state government.

The Met Office claimed it had alerted the state government of the impending heavy rains 48 hours in advance and that the Char Dham Yatra could have been halted in time, saving hundreds of lives.

"The reasons (behind the tragedy) will be examined. The focus right now should be on evacuating stranded people, ensuring relief and rehabilitation and checking the spread of epidemic," Maken said.

Maken said thousands of people have been left homeless and their houses uprooted. "We should rise above partisan politics and serve the people," he said.

He said the temple town of Kedarnath has been fully evacuated and the remainder of pilgrims in Badrinath would also be evacuated if the weather permits.

Over 100,000 people have been evacuated and thousands are said to be missing in the flash floods and landslides that ravaged the hill state due to extraordinary rains June 14 onwards.

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