It’s been seven years, but Ajay Gautam cannot forget what he witnessed at the site of the “Himalayan Tsunami” in north India’s Kedarnath valley. Kedarnath is one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Hindus, which sees millions of tourists every year. In 2013, around 300,000 pilgrims and tourists were trapped in the calamity.
“There were bodies everywhere,” Gautam, an activist who is also a consultant to the state government’s search team, told VICE World News. “There are still many remaining. Those visuals are still stuck in my mind, even now.”
The National Institute of Disaster Management report from 2013 puts the casualty at 169, while a state government official had put the figure at over 10,000. Nobody knows the final count.
Families have been looking for their lost kin since 2013. A few “miracle” stories also emerged over the years. But over 3,000 are still missing. Photo: Deepak Malik/Getty Images
Official data says that 3,075 people are still missing. Since 2013, remains of over 700 people have been recovered. Even today, the hunt for the missing continues. “Official figures stand at over 3,000 missing but we will never know exactly how many we lost,” said Gautam. “We have yet to find them.”
Early this week, a deluge in the same region’s Chamoli district struck after a suspected glacier burst. While rescue attempts are on for over 30 trapped workers, and with nearly 200 missing, the event is being compared to the 2013 flash floods in Kedarnath. Scientists attributed the disaster to the melting glaciers and escalating construction.
Over 100,000 people were airlifted from the affected areas as the 2013 deluge wreaked havoc. Bodies were found washed away in distant cities hundreds of miles away. In the immediate aftermath, decaying bodies contaminated the water resources of the town and led to fears of an epidemic. There were also claims of locals raping, looting and killing the disaster victims as the disaster unfolded.
The following year though, it was business as usual in Kedarnath, which is part of the state’s thriving religious tourism.
Women and children participated in a prayer meeting in 2015 to remember their loved ones who lost their life during the Kedarnath double flash floods. Photo by Deepak Malik/ Getty Images
In the meantime, bodies kept emerging. Last year, a fresh search effort was launched after the Uttarakhand state revived the operation with appropriate technology. Riddhim Aggarwal, the Deputy Inspector General of Police with the State Disaster Response Force (SDRF), told VICE World News that a total of 900 bodies have been recovered from the disaster site since 2013. “DNA sampling is also taking place, although many bodies are still missing,” said Aggarwal. “The main purpose of this activity is to find as many bodies as possible and provide proper cremation and final rites.” The next search operation is scheduled for April 2021.
In 2018, Gautam filed a public interest litigation (PIL) to look for more bodies because of the number of families who reached out to him for help.
“There are still people out there who are looking for their loved ones,” he said. “When the tragedy happened, the officials assumed that most of the missing people were dead, and issued death certificates. Many missing people lost their mental strength and were seen begging on the streets after they lost their families. I’m in touch with many who are still looking for their kin.”
In recent years, some people presumed dead in 2013 deluge were found alive.
One of them is Chanchal Chand, a teenager who was found in 2018. “This reunion is nothing short of a miracle,” Chand’s grandparents Harish Chand and Shakuntala Devi had said. The girl’s father was swept away in the floods, while her mother was also found after a few days, alive. Chanchal was 12 at the time of the tragedy, and was found by strangers who handed her over to an orphanage in the northern Indian city of Jammu. National NGO Childline helped bring her back.
Locals look for their relatives’ names in the list of the dead persons in the state of Uttarakhand at Police Lines after the tragedy. Photo: Vinay Santosh Kumar/Getty Images
In another case, a resident of the western Indian state of Rajasthan called Vijendra Singh never gave up searching for his wife, Leela, who went missing in the floods. Singh was given a death certificate by the government. After 19 months, Singh found Leela begging on the streets. “The death certificate was not enough to convince him of his wife’s death,” recalled Gautam.
In September last year, several teams set off to look for more bodies. They found four human skeletons. Navneet Singh Bhullar, the Superintendent of Police of district Rudraprayag told the media that the DNA of the skeletons will be matched with the family members of people who went missing to ascertain their identities.
At the same time, the operations and relief efforts are also mired in controversies. Since 2013, Gautam has filed several petitions, one of which alleged that the government is not giving out the actual number of casualties. In 2015, a Right To Information query filed by a local activist Bhupendra Kumar found that government officials “partied” on the relief fund meant for the disaster. This prompted a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation.
Gautam believes a lot needs to be done to bring closure to families, many of whom have developed post-traumatic stress disorder. “If the rescue work had been done properly from the beginning, we wouldn’t still be here looking for bodies,” said Gautam.
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