Real heroes: How the ITBP got to Uttarakhand first

“The worst is over,” said Amit Prasad, DIG, Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), as his troops, along with the Army and the National Disaster Response Force, race against time to evacuate residents and tourists from Badrinath and Harsil in Uttarakhand.

The highly trained ITBP force, which is deployed along the Indo-China border, was the first to reach and initiate rescue operations in Uttarkhand’s Kedarnath Valley, the worst affected by the floods unleashed by the onset of monsoon rains and the cloudburst on June 16.

Firstpost spoke to Prasad on Monday about what it took to reach the worst affected regions and evacuate people when all connections - roads and bridges – had been washed away in the deluge.

Excerpts from the interview

Is the worst over?

I believe so. We have evacuated most of the pilgrims from the Kedarnath valley. We are trying to persuade the few locals and sadhus who remain there to also evacuate. The cremation of dead bodies will start now. The local administration is in charge of that.

Gaurikund is now a stable zone. We were able to establish track route (land route) and if people want to leave, they can use the track route and we can help them. We have been able to evacuate everybody from places between Kedarnath and Gaurikund. The track route we were able to build right up to Jungle Chatti has been very helpful.

Before the Air Force arrived, it was the private choppers that were instrumental in evacuating people. Even though they were small and could accommodate 4-5 people, they played a crucial role. In fact, it was private choppers that were instrumental in dropping us there in the first place.

The ITBP was the first force to reach the interiors regions.

We are the first responders. We are located here. And so we immediately rushed. As far as Kedarnath was concerned, the problem was that it was completely cut off. The only way we could reach was to be air-dropped. And that was possible only when the weather permitted us. We reached on June 19. With the help of private choppers, we managed to drop our people there. They built a helipad at Gaurikund to begin with and then build a track route down to Sonprayag. These were easier said than done.

Thereafter, we built the Rambada helipad, followed by the Jungle Chatti land route. The advantage about building a land route or a foot-track is that you can take people in continuous droves. Whereas with an air sortie there is the limitation of carrying a couple of people at a time. It has to ferry them. This takes time. When the two work in tandem that is the best solution.

Given the terrain, how difficult is it to establish track routes or foot-tracks?

The most difficult part is that these mountains are at a gradient of almost 80 degrees plus. The track has to be built by cutting into the slope. The track has to be at least two-and-a-half feet wide. Boulders have to removed. And the tracks are slippery, it is not easy for people to negotiate the climb. And so you need ropes, ladders. Where ever possible people have to be ferried on your back as well. You have line up your men and then bring people down.

Soon other forces came in and we all joined together. It was a very good concerted effort. If you look at the number of people who have been rescued and the time span that was available to us, we have been able to rescue most of the people.

 Real heroes: How the ITBP got to Uttarakhand first

ITBP people assist a pilgrim during rescue operations in Uttarakhand. PTI

But yes, it was very difficult. It wasn't possible to evacuate entire populations in one day. And so food packets had to be dropped. No doubt, people had to go through a lot. They had to suffer hunger pangs, anxiety.

The other big challenge was Ghaghariya, on the Hemkhund side. We had to build bridges because people had to cross rivers. Again that was not easy.

These were difficult operations because we had to rescue people from all age-groups in large numbers. And people were very anxious. We had to explain to people to line up to avoid stampede-like situations.

Then the Gangotri sector, it was also cut off. We had to make tracks and evacuate people and bring them to Harsil, where air evacuation could take place. Between Harsil and Uttarkashi, there were a number of places that were cut off from both sides. Wherever possible, we built helipads. In Kedarnath, for example, there were very few places where we could build helipads. For a helipad, the ground has to flattened and consolidated.  If there is loose soil the chopper will topple over.

The last major challenge, of course, is Badrinath. People are being evacuated. As far as we are concerned, there is not much to worry. People are anxious of course. But we are confident that people will be successfully evacuated.

Badrinath as a place has not been ravaged by nature. It is safe. Between Badrinath and Joshimath there have been massive landslides and roads have been cut off. In Hanuman Chatti, a 4-5 kms stretch of road has been washed away. Our troops have been able to build a foot-track. Those couple of kilometres are treacherous. We have to use ropes, ladders. It is not for everyone, it only for those who are robust. We have evacuated about 500 people through this route.

The reassuring part is that people have been able to hold up because food and medicines have been dropped. People’s anxieties needs to be taken care off. There are enough choppers to take them out. They have started their operations day before yesterday.

What is extent of the devastation?

The KedarnathValley is the worst-affected. And that is because of the cloud-burst. The cloud burst washed away the entire route, cutting off places from each other. Many people have died trying to trek up or down. Kedarnath area is at a very high altitude and the oxygen levels also have to be taken into consideration. There were children and elderly among those stranded. Not everybody is fit to cope with such situations. Because of the mortal danger they were in, they attempted to climb up but due to exhaustion, they couldn’t make it.

What has been the most challenging ordeal for your troops?

We were told that six of our men had died in Kedarnath. But luckily all of them survived. I took a de-briefing from them. It was basically their training that helped them survive. Of course, there is also the luck factor. From what they told us, on the evening of June 16, the water was rising because of the rain. The situation was threatening but not damaging. But 12 hours later, when the cloud burst took place, that is actually when the major disaster struck. And water flowing downhill, gathered speed, taking with it the boulders. That is what caused the maximum damage.

Many may have been washed away in that deluge. There are many dead bodies. I cannot comment on how many there are. I have told my force to focus on the living. It is very distressing for them to see those dead bodies but they have to focus on those who are living. You cannot afford to become emotional at this moment.

It is as much an emotional challenge as it is a physical one.

When such a tragedy strikes, we have to remain extremely positive and summon all the positivity one can muster. We have to remain focussed on the job at hand. We cannot afford to start becoming gloomy.

How many forces of the ITBP are involved in the rescue operations?

We have more than 700-800 personnel involved in the four regions. You also have to understand that we cannot vacate our borders. I cannot recall these forces. These are international borders and sensitive areas. We have pulled in as many people as we could.

What is the priority for ITBP at this point? Have all stranded tourists been identified or are there still places that haven’t been reached?

We have identified, we have reached all the stranded persons. But we still have to conduct search operations. Every breathing soul has to be evacuated.

What is the focus now?

We are clearing people out first. We are in each of these sectors. Once the green signal is given that everybody has been rescued, then it will be search mission.

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Updated Date: Jun 25, 2013 10:06:12 IST