NEW DELHI // Rescuers in northern India were frantically trying to save 50,000 people stranded by floods and landslides that have left 600 dead, with more heavy rain forecast.
About 40 bodies were fished out of the River Ganges near Hardwar yesterday as the extent of the devastation in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand from the early monsoon became clearer.
"556 bodies have been noticed by the army ... either floating or buried in slush," Vijay Bahuguna, the state's chief minister told the CNN-IBN TV channel. The death toll could rise in to the thousands, he said.
As the rescue efforts continued, many have started to question whether poor urban planning and environmental degradation might have exacerbated the disaster.
With thunderstorms forecast for Tuesday, more rain will make rescue operations even more difficult in Uttarakhand where bridges, roads and communication networks have been destroyed.
Nearly 34,000 people, including many tourists and pilgrims, have already been evacuated by the army, air force, and Indo Tibetan Border Police.
Rescue operations were stepped up over the last two days. The Indian Air Force is using 43 aircraft to lift people out of flood-hit regions, while nearly 10,000 troops have been deployed in the state to build temporary bridges and restore road links.
Uttrakhand spokesman Amit Chandola said the rescue operation centred on evacuating nearly 27,000 people trapped in the worst-hit Kedarnath temple area - one of the holiest Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, located in the Garhwal Himalayan range.
The floods were caused by early and heavy monsoon rain. Uttarakhand received more than 14 times the rainfall than it usually does by this time of the monsoon season.
Nearly 13,000 people are still missing, with authorities hampered in their efforts to track them down by ruptured telephone networks.
Kishan Trivedi, a supervisor at a private security firm in Rudraprayag, one of the worst-hit districts, has been trying to contact his family, further up in the hills, for five days now.
"There is no news of them," Mr Trivedi said. He hoped that his father and brother had simply been unable to charge their mobile phones.
"I don't want to lose hope yet," he said. "When the roads open, I will go look for them."
The floods have started a debate over whether the devastation was "man-made" - a result of development and construction that did not heed the requirements of ecologically sensitive areas.
Jayanthi Natarajan, India's environment minister, said on Thursday that a proposal to turn a 130-kilometre stretch along the Bhagirathi river into an "eco-sensitive zone" had been delayed because of opposition from the Uttarakhand government.
The state's chief minister Mr Bahuguna had met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in May to argue that the proposal would slow down development and endanger the livelihoods of people living in the area.
Criticisms have emerged that buildings are built too close to the river or on previously forested land, weakening the soil and increasing the likelihood of floods and landslides.
VK Raina, a former deputy-director general of the Geological Survey of India, told The Hindu newspaper that Uttarakhand suffered from rampant urbanisation.
"Construction in Uttarakhand is not planned. The owners [of buildings] have taken a calculated risk and paid for it," Mr Raina said.
But Pavan Srinath, a policy researcher at the Chennai-based Takshashila Institution, who has written extensively about climate change, told The National that cause and effect were difficult to establish in such situations.
"Theoretically, if you mess around in mountain systems, you can increase chances of landslides or floods, yes," Mr Srinath said. "The question is: How much does the risk go up? We don't know that yet."
Similarly, Mr Srinath hesitated to draw a link between global climate change patterns and the early monsoon rain that triggered Uttarakhand's floods.
"One of the theories is that global warming increases the intensity of the monsoon rains," Mr Srinath said. He acknowledged that climate change was causing "extreme weather events" but argued that it was difficult to conclusively prove that these floods were one such event.
"I would say, instead, that our towns haven't even adapted to regular variations in climates, let alone climate change-induced ones," Mr Srinath said. "Really, that's the conversation we should be having."
With additional reporting by Associated press and Agence France-Presse