Ten Uttarakhand police and State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) teams on Wednesday restarted a search operation along the treacherous mountainous routes leading to Kedarnath to trace the remains of hundreds of people, who remain missing since flash floods and landslides ravaged the region 3,553 m above sea level in June 2013. Kedarnath is the site of a revered Hindu temple in Uttarakhand’s Rudraprayag district.
Rudraprayag police superintendent Navneet Singh Bhullar said each team comprises two police and SDRF personnel each as well as local guides and medical experts. “Seven teams will undertake the search operation for four days while the three teams for six days.”
The fresh search effort comes a month after the Uttarakhand government constituted a high-level multi-institutional expert committee to suggest appropriate technology or methodology for searching the remains of 3,075 missing people.
Remains of 699 people have been recovered since tens of thousands of Hindu devotees, who visit the region annually for the pilgrimage to Kedarnath, Gangotri, Badrinath, and Yamunotri, were trapped as record rains triggered landslides and floods. Villages were buried and gushing waters washed away roads and homes. The devastation, which was dubbed as the Himalayan tsunami, led to one of the largest rescue operations involving the Indian Air force. Over 100,000 people were airlifted from the devastated areas.
As many as 545 remains were recovered in 2013, 63 in 2014, three in 2015, 60 in 2016, seven in 2017, and 21 in 2018.
The state government in May 2017 constituted five special investigation teams to trace and cremate the bodies of the missing people months after the Uttarakhand high court directed it to do so in November 2016.
In June, the high court directed the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology to suggest scientific ways that can be adopted to trace the remains of 3,075 people without harming the Himalayan environment.
The search operation has been launched even as rains have been lashing parts of the state.
Bhullar said the operation had to be restarted before the weather in high attitude Kedarnath area makes it difficult to conduct it.
Bhullar said the teams have been provided with body bags, trekking gear, sleeping bags, and other tools to help them trace the remains during their treks along the routes.
He added the medical experts will collect samples for DNA testing and keep a record of the remains found. “The remains will be brought back in the body bags so that their last rites could be held as per the Hindu tradition.”
Delhi-based activist Ajay Gautam, who moved the Uttarakhand high court in 2014 seeking directions to the authorities to expedite the search for the missing, said he is happy that the search operation has been restarted. “This will help so many families to find closure and perform last rites of their loved ones who died in the tragedy.”
The Uttarakhand government provided the first official estimate–5,748–of the missing persons in July 2013, making their families eligible for financial relief.