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Rescue helicopter crashes in Kedarnath as toll from 'Himalayan tsunami' rises

Authorities to conduct mass cremations of the dead, as an estimated 8,000 people remain stranded in the mountainous state. Samanth Subramanian reports

Gauchar residents unload wood to be loaded onto an Indian air force helicopter bound for Kedarnath to construct a giant funeral pyre for flood victims.
Gauchar residents unload wood to be loaded onto an Indian air force helicopter bound for Kedarnath to construct a giant funeral pyre for flood victims.

NEW DELHI // Eight people were killed when a rescue helicopter crashed in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand yesterday.

More than a week after an early monsoon unleashed flash floods, an estimated 8,000 people remain stranded in the mountainous state.

The chopper that went down was one of 45 aircraft flying relief missions hampered by fresh spells of rain.

Five crew members and three civilians died in the crash in the temple town of Kedarnath, which took place as the helicopter was returning from a mission.

The Indian air force said that rescue operations would continue, even though the Indian Meteorological Department expected heavy rain in the state for another three days.

The death toll has increased to more than 1,000 and is expected to climb further. Authorities also fear there could be an outbreak of disease in flood-hit areas.

In Kedarnath, authorities were trying to procure 50 tonnes of wood to conduct cremations for the hundreds of pilgrims who died in the floods. Officials were concerned that the decomposing bodies would create a breeding ground for disease.

The federal health ministry yesterday said it had sent more than one million chlorine tablets to purify drinking water supplies in Uttarakhand.

In the middle of the devastation, the Indian armed forces have won praise for their diligence.

Soldiers have rebuilt roads and set up rope bridges, carried the infirm to safety on their shoulders, parachuted into areas where helicopters were unable to land, and worked through cruel weather.

"The situation was deteriorating with the passage of time," Sukhvinder Singh, a pilgrim who was stranded for eight days said.

"We were relieved when the army stepped in. They gave us food and water and helped us in every possible way. Had they not been here, we wouldn't have survived."

But the politicisation of relief efforts has drawn sharp criticism.

With less than a year to go before general elections, both the ruling Congress party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have appeared desperate to boost their own efforts.

The BJP has been critical of the Congress, which forms the Uttarakhand government and also leads the ruling coalition at the federal government.

"It is shocking that the prime minister has not addressed the nation even after a week has passed. In the US, the president speaks to the people even if there is a minor shooting," Prakash Javdekar, a BJP spokesman, said on Monday.

The BJP had also criticised Rahul Gandhi, the Congress vice president and possible future premier, for failing to visit the state.

Mr Gandhi arrived in Uttarakhand two days ago.

Renuka Chowdhury, a Congress spokeswoman, lashed out at the BJP, claiming that it was "suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder and cannot see anything beyond their thirst for power".

Over the weekend, Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat and the front-runner to be the BJP's prime ministerial candidate in next year's elections, toured Uttarakhand.

Subsequent news reports, citing unnamed members of his entourage, said that Mr Modi had evacuated 15,000 people in two days.

Manish Tewari, the minister for information and broadcasting, said on Sunday that the statistic was false.

"If somebody wants to become Rambo and claims that he alone, in a span of two days during a trip of disaster tourism, brought out 15,000 people, I am afraid for the lack of a better word, it just reflects rank opportunism and sheer desperation to try to politicise and even milk a tragedy for political reasons," said Mr Tewari.

On Monday, the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, participated in an elaborate ceremony in Delhi to flag off 24 lorries carrying relief material to flood-hit areas.

Abhinandan Sekhri, who runs NewsLaundry, a website of media criticism, said that such measures of self-promotion were only to be expected.

"While I may think it is in poor taste, I'd say that if this competition actually makes them do more work on the ground, then that's a good thing," said Mr Sekhri.

"In that case, the only downside is the aesthetics of the self-promotion, and in such a situation, aesthetics is an indulgence we can't really afford."

What he found more worrying, he said, was "the casualness with which the media reported the Modi claim, without doing the due diligence to check whether it was even true".

ssubramanian@thenational.ae

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