Dehradun/New Delhi: A chunk of the Nanda Devi glacier broke off on Sunday in Chamoli in Uttarakhand; the awe-inspiring event known as “calving” that happens naturally triggered a deadly avalanche and deluge in the Alaknanda river system that washed away hydroelectric stations and trapped more than 100 labourers who are feared dead.
Experts blame the phenomenon on the thinning of ice shelves, possibly caused by global warming. The devastating flash floods caused by the glacial outburst inundated the roads and villages downstream, as well as two power projects, triggering widespread panic in the high altitude terrain.
Scores of labourers working on NTPC's Tapovan and the Rishi Ganga projects were trapped in tunnels as the waters came gushing in. Sixteen of them were rescued but more than 100 were still missing. Soaked in mud, they were pulled out one after the other from a slush-covered tunnel.
In a video of the operation, slogans of 'dum lagakey haisha' rent the air as a couple of men climb through the vertical and narrow snout of the tunnel with the help of a rope line. "Apna bhai aa gaya (our brother is back)," said a local who works in the project area as another official summed up the mood in the disaster zone by saying, "Nayi zindagi mili (those rescued got a new life)".
The rescue operations, however, came to a halt in the dead of the night.
Human settlements on the banks of the Alaknanda river system and its tributaries were swept away in the raging torrent. But downstream many villages could be evacuated with the disaster relief teams getting into the act.
The ITBP has units in Joshimath, a short distance away, and were the first to reach the spot within an hour of the first alert at about 10.45 am. ITBP spokesperson Vivek Kumar Pandey said that his men heard a "large bang and screams" shortly after 10:45 AM when the tragedy is stated to have struck the two dam sites near Raini village in Chamoli.
Several districts, including Pauri, Tehri, Rudraprayag, Haridwar and Dehradun, were put on high alert. Disaster relief team members were seen rappelling down steep mountainsides to aid in the rescue.
Groups of people were seen sitting along the high altitude roads, waiting for news of their loved ones. Additional troops were airlifted from Delhi and Dehradun and rushed to the disaster sites.
As details of the disaster trickled in, President Ram Nath Kovind voiced his concern even as PM Modi said he was constantly monitoring the situation. “India stands with Uttarakhand, prays for everyone's safety,” he said. An entire column of the Engineering Task Force of the Army, with all the rescue equipment at its disposal, has been deployed. Navy divers are also being flown in.
Home Minister Amit Shah also spoke to Uttarakhand Chief Minister Rawat and assured him of all possible support.