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15K Gujarati pilgrims rescued? Tales of survivors magnify the absurd claimBy Vishal Dutta, ET Bureau | The Economic Times, 30 June 2013
It's raining heavily, its zero degrees, I am freezing and rain water is gushing down from the hills. Five of us have managed to reach the terrace, the other four died on the spot on the ground floor due to water and debris... I can hear three women half-buried in the debris screaming for help.
I need to help them or else they will die. But my legs are swollen... The entire town is pitch-dark... my mobile has last point charging... You don't speak, just hear me and try to get help from the Gujarat or Uttrakhand government or get in touch with Central government...."
That's a chilling mobile phone recording of a five-minute desperate plea for help at close to midnight on June 16 from Hiren Dave, stuck in the hills of Kedarnath, to his friend Javal Patel in Ahmedabad. Javal hasn't heard from his 36-year-old friend since then. It's almost two weeks now that Hiren and 12 others of a group of 40 pilgrims that went to Kedarnath are missing. Hiren's SOS to Javal was just one of the many he made as the clouds burst over Kedarnath on that fateful Sunday. Through that night he and his family members as well as Javal in Ahmedabad made frantic calls to different help agencies in Uttarakhand, Delhi and in Gujarat.
No One Listened
"The government hardly has any presence during crises and like a fool my friend was asking me to get the government's help," says a broken Javal. "That night I was so near to him, but still helpless to do anything. Hiren was begging for help and the government was nowhere near." Along with Hiren, four of his relatives are also missing, even as his wife and younger brother back home are scurrying around for help and information. Manshuk Patel is one of the 40 from the group who has been brought back from Uttarakhand. But eight of his family members are still missing.
Hospitalised for depression, Patel is inconsolable and has lost his will to live. No government official visited him; neither has the government been able to provide any information about his missing family members. Ashok Barot, 52, a head constable with a local CID crime branch in Gujarat, was lucky to survive. A high blood pressure and diabetic patient, he decided to stay back in a bus, 17 km off the Kedarnath shrine. The next morning when he saw a huge tsunami hurtling towards him, he and other passengers ran toward a hill.
"Halfway up, when I turned back to take a look at the parking, nearly 80 parked vehicles had got swept away at one go," says Barot in disbelief. Against this backdrop of devastation, the mysterious and atrocious claim that Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi rescued 15,000 from the state is black humour at its worst. "He was able to rescue only 150 Gujaratis via air," Arjun Modhwadia, Gujarat Congress president, told a local daily. For their part, Modi and the BJP have distanced themselves from the 'Rambo' act. "Such claims reflect the sick mind of the politicians and the real anti-people vote politics of politicians. This is nothing but exploitation of people's pain for their narrow vote politics even in such a manmade disaster situation" says Rohit Prajapati, an RTI activist and founder of Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, an NGO.
Politically motivated claims also undermine the stellar efforts of the armed forces that had deployed over 8,000 troops to rescue over 2,000 stranded people (till the time of writing). The Rambo feat appears even more absurd when juxtaposed with Gujarat's own disaster management set-up, suggests Prajapati. "Looking at the numerical strength and skills of the present staff of the GSDMA [Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority], it appears that the department is in coma," he points out. The GSDMA was formed by the state government a week after January 26, 2001 earthquake hit Gujarat.
Nearly 17,000 people had died. To substantiate his argument, Prajapati points to a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) released on April 23 this year, where it has clearly said that between 2007 and 2012 GSDMA held only two meetings. And the state's draft State Disaster Management Plan was approved only in July 2012.
The report further points out that emergency operation groups to address the immediate impact of a particular incident were not created. Interestingly, it's the same CAG report which had warned that anUttarakhand disaster plan did not exist. A detailed email questionnaire sent to the office of GSDMA CEO Ranjit Banerjee in Gandhinagar remained unanswered. When contacted, an official at the office informed this reporter that Banerjee would not be replying.
Prajapati is fighting for setting up a chemical disaster emergency plan in Gujarat, as the state has large chunk of chemical industry it accounts for more than 62% of the nation's output of petrochemicals and 51% of chemicals. He says the GSDMA may have got some awards but does not have chemical emergency and nuclear emergency plans. For the moment, however, all eyes are on Uttarakhand, and how many more of the missing can be found. Says Palavi Patel, elder sister of Hiren: "The real test of any government's potency is during catastrophes and not during good times with food security bills and employment schemes."