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Monday, 24 June 2013

From Today's Papers - 24 Jun 2013






http://www.tribuneindia.com/2013/20130624/nation.htm#8
Road leading to Pak border in Rann of Kutch faces flooding
Shaurya K Gurung/TNS

Rann of Kutch (Indo-Pak border), June 23
The Border Security Force (BSF), the first line of defence of the Indian armed forces on the western sector, is faced with restricted mobility every July at the Rann of Kutch that has a single 90-km road connecting it to the India-Pakistan border.

The problem which has plagued the BSF is a direct result of Pakistan releasing excess water in the Vighokot region (located near the Indo-Pak border) of the Rann of Kutch and the lack of suitable vehicles and other facilities there.

The water is released from the canals connected to the Indus river. The floods first took place in 2005 and thereafter have been a regular feature — occurring during the monsoons.

The inundation lasts for about a month, forcing the BSF to relocate its troops along the border in the Rann of Kutch where a portion of the 1965 Indo-Pak war was fought.

“The inundation damages military structures along the border, cuts the supply line to the troops and reduces mobility,” said AK Sinha, Inspector General of the BSF’s Gujarat Frontier.

The inundation on the single road starts from Khavda in Gujarat leading to India Bridge (beyond which the Rann of Kutch starts) and then heads towards the Vighokot region. The BSF has strategically set up a number of border outposts in Vighokot.

“The fresh water released from Pakistan becomes saline due to the soil. The salinity creates cracks in our observation posts and corrodes our fences along the border. The roads along the fences also get flooded. There are several patches near the fences where the floodlights have stopped working due to the inundation. Our underground bunkers near the fences also can’t be used,” explained the officer.

The floods also reduce the mobility of the troops, who can only be transported to the border areas by all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). An ATV can transport six troops at a time and are capable of being used in any terrain. “But if the ATVs are driven at a high speed, water usually enters the engine’s radiator and damages it,” said a BSF officer.

“After the water recedes, some patches of the marshy area turns into quicksand. Luckily, there have been no such instances with our troops,” said another BSF officer. The BSF will soon acquire two hovercrafts, which are air-cushion vehicles that can operate on land, water and any other surface.

http://www.tribuneindia.com/2013/20130624/edit.htm#6
Welfare for the veterans, by the veterans
Neglect of ex-servicemen is one of the reasons that a career in the armed forces has lost its sheen. It is time we devoted serious attention to the host of issues and problems affecting the veterans
Brig M.L. Kataria (retd)

There are 2.5 million ex-servicemen (ESM) in India who are entitled to post-retirement care according to the terms of their service. If we include their spouses and dependants, they add up to about 10 million. It is estimated that this number may swell 20 million by the year 2040.

While in uniform, the soldier, sailor or airman, comes home for brief periods, once or twice a year. Hardly 20 per cent of them are lucky enough to have one or two tenures of not more than two to three years in a peace station, where again, not all of them get government accommodation. The hunt for hired accommodation and admissions for school children being tedious, tiring and uneconomical, he lives in barracks and goes back to the borders after his tenure in town.


He retires rather young. When he sheds his uniform and comes home, he is gripped with many problems. Pension is not enough. There are land disputes. The tenant refuses to vacate the house. Children’s education and tuitions are expensive. There are ailing parents to be looked after. He needs a job to add to his meager pension which is not released promptly. With the passage of time, he finds health problems becoming more and more acute.

With problems galore, he runs from pillar to post, from one local ESM league to another, from one sainik welfare officer to another at various levels, but to hardly any avail. When his son grows up and wishes to join the armed forces, enamoured by his father's uniform and medals still well preserved and hanging in a comer, he forcefully forbids his son not to do so but rather take up anything else as a career.

When the soldier is martyred, those in authority make tall promises to the bereaved parents, widows and orphans for his supreme sacrifice for the motherland, but years pass by in futile wait.

Who is responsible exclusively for the management of ESM? There is the Directorate of Resettlment in the Ministry of Defence with a limited role in finding jobs for ESM. The states have a Director of Sainik Welfare with a sainik welfare officer at each district. Command, Area and Sub-Area headquarters also try to help out the ESM, in addition to their whole time engagement in logistics for the Command for its routine operations. There is also the Ex-Servicemen's League at Delhi, with insignificant functioning at the all-India level. Various states, cities and towns have unrecognised, unregistered splinter ESM associations. There are on the face of it, many fingers-in-the-pie for ex-servicemen's management. However in actual practice there is not a single organisation accountably responsible to deal with the problems of ESM.
Need for a single organisation

In view of the sizable number of ESM and their dependants, which is likely to double up during the next three decades, we need a countrywide organisation to manage their affairs, on the principle of “self-management by the ESM for the ESM” as an integral part of the Ministry of Defence. Call it a Department of ESM, with its branches in every state district, town and village or where ever required.

Such an organisation should be manned entirely by ESM volunteers of all ranks, from a general down to a sepoy and their equivalents in the Navy and Air Force, as far as possible.

The nitty-gritty, nuts and bolts of this all-India organisation, its role and functioning at each level, is a thesis by itself, to be worked out in detail. An annual budget allocation by MOD for the department will be required. The proposed ESM organisation will grapple with all post-retirement problems, individual as well as collective, at all levels -- local, district, state and central level, regimental records, pension, etc.

Only a few amongst the myriads of such problems may be enumerated, such as re-employment with the para-military forces, public and private sectors, municipal corporations, banks, transport, government project for veterans, procurement of bank loans for various purposes, conciliation of various domestic disputes, property and land problems, children's admission to educational institutions, legal cases in local courts and the Armed Forces Tribunal, patronage of widows and orphans with their multiple problems, complicated health problems of dependant parents, old age homes for aged ESM and their dependants, etc.

Most Commands, Areas, Sub-Areas and Station Headquarters have substantial funds for troops’ welfare, including ESM. Canteen profits add to these funds every year. The proposed ESM organisation at each level should liaise with respective headquarters for their share of such funds. Alternatively, the whole share of ESM should be transferred to the central fund at the disposal of the proposed Department for ESM at the MoD.

In due course of time, having acquired organisational maturity, expertise, confidence and with available talent, the organisation should be competent to undertake minor and major government and municipal service projects at various levels to generate its own funds.

With efficiency, diligence and quality services, the organization can easily win over monopoly to operate canteen services in all hospitals, government offices, retail medical shops in hospitals, security services in all banks, school transport services, as a few amongst many other similar projects.

The proposed organisation should function like a non-government organisation under the protective wing of the government at all levels. The self-help venture, like any other undertaking, needs a bold and committed leadership which is available in plenty amongst the ESM. More than that, a political will is required, which has never been lacking for the armed forces and ESM in India.

While in uniform, the Army, Navy and Air Force Acts and Rules are applicable to enforce discipline and compliance of orders. The standards of training, nature of routine, work culture, methods of man-management and above all, inter personal relationship, inculcate a high degree of comradeship, respect for and faith in the seniors. Therefore there is no need to resort to Acts/Rules. These virtues of respect, work ethics, a sense of sacrifice and patriotism are carried over as a part of the psyche by the ESM, even after he or she sheds the uniform. They continue to address the seniors as “Sir” for the rest of their life. This inherited spirit and qualities of leadership at all levels should govern the execution of work by the proposed organisation of the ESM, without any Acts/Rules.

Expanded charter

In spite of Sarv Siksha Abhyan and the Right to Education Act, except in a couple of states, the illiteracy rate continues to be 20 to 30 per cent. The number of schools and trained teachers is far below the number of students. Higher education of children is a pressing problem for ESM. There is only one Armed Forces Medical College at Pune and an Army Law Institute at Mohali (Punjab). In times to come, the proposed Veteran Educational Service may establish more institutions for higher education, including engineering and management.

To solve the problems of affiliations with regional universities, with multiple rational institutions spread countrywide, a Central Veteran University may eventually become a possibility.

More than 30 per cent ESM are facing complicated legal problems beyond their individual and financial scope. Most prominent of these problems are land disputes, land grab, eviction of tenants, widow's pension, and inheritance problems of martyrs’ orphans.

Most of these legal cases continue through out the life of the ESM, due to lack of follow up and lack of physical, mental and financial capacity of the veteran. The veteran's legal service at central, regional and local levels can play a vital role in attending to individual problems. Besides dealing with local, district and high courts, the proposed legal service can now bring up these cases to the Armed Forces Tribunal.

Ex-servicemen's Contributory Health Service (ECHS) has been functioning for over five years. It needs a thorough review. It is a subject by itself. However the proposed ESM's department will be involved more and more with the functioning of the ECHS. In the same context establishment of veteran's hospitals in time to come should be visualised. At present, Military Hospitals in most places do not have infrastructure in their establishment for catering to ESM, who are an additional work load on them. ECHS polyclinics have been established at the district level. The ECHS needs a mobile medical service at district level to reach out to ESM mostly residing in rural areas. It is quite common to see elderly ESM and their families, living alone both in rural and urban areas. The proposed veteran’s organisation will have an important task to establish old age-cum-nursing homes on an as required basis.

British and American models

The British government retains a few portfolios for veteran's affairs to be administered centrally and has delegated the rest of ESM care to the service headquarters. Some of the centrally administered affairs are pensions and compensations, veteran’s advisory and pension committees, armed forces memorials, special support programmes for veterans and the Royal Patriotic Fund Corporation. The Veterans Affair Department has annual budget estimates and allocations to the three service headquarters for veteran's welfare programmes. .

The Naval Headquaters has organised the Royal Naval Association for naval veterans. They have established a Royal Naval Benevolent Trust to support various programmes for their veterans. The Air Force Headquarters. has also established the Veteran Royal Air Force Association and Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund to support various schemes for veterans. The Army Headquarters has delegated management of their veterans affairs to their respective regiments, who have in turn formed their veteran's associations and benevolent funds. All the association funds and trusts attend to various problems of their ESM like housing, re-employment, rehabilitation, health and disabled veterans centers, legal problems, widows and orphan care, educational loans and financial assistance, etc.

Army, navy and air force are integrated defence services in USA. There is a Federal Department of Veterans Affair with branches in each state. They maintain an up-to-date directory of all veterans and coordinate the functioning of various organisations for veterans.

There are rank-wise veterans associations like Military Officers Association of America the Non-Commissioned Officers Organisation and the American G.I. Forum. There are associations of veterans from various wars like the Vietnam Veterans of America Incorporated, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

There are also ethnic American veterans organisations like Catholic Veterans Association, Jewish Veterans of America, Society of Hispanic Americans and National Association for Black American Veterans. There are exclusive organisations for the blind, disabled and women veterans. Organisation of veterans by various categories and their co-ordination by the Department of Veterans Affairs at all levels ensures management of all types of veterans affairs by reaching out to every one.

We have yet to read about or see on TV, veterans in the UK or US out on streets for a protest against neglect, what to say of their retired generals threatening to return their medals of chivalry and meritorious services.

A career in the armed forces, till a few decades ago, was a coveted choice. For many reasons, the defence services, particularly the army is loosing its sheen. Neglect of ESM is one of the reasons. Dignity of a nation is depicted by the way the nation looks after its disabled persons, women and children. The nation's valor is depicted by the way the nation looks after its ESM. It is time we devote serious attention to our ESM. A penny spent on them will bring dividends worth more than a pound.

http://www.tribuneindia.com/2013/20130624/main2.htm
Tough task for forces amid dark clouds
Ajay Banerjee/TNS

Jungle Chatti/Kedarnath, June 23
When dark clouds and rain stalled rescue operations in flood-hit Uttarakhand on Sunday morning, Army and Indian Air Force pilots at the launch pads in Gauchar and Guptkashi became restless.

At Jungle Chatti, located just east of the Kedarnath shrine, some 1,000 pilgrims, were waiting to be evacuated on helicopters. These were survivors of the Gaurikund-Kedarnath axis - the epicentre of the June 16 floods in the state.

Jungle Chatti is the name of the camping site and ‘Chatti’ in the local language means makeshift shelter. This shelter lies on the 18-km Gaurikund-Kedarnath trek.

At Badrinath shrine - more than 135 km east of Jungle Chatti - another 9,000 persons needed to be moved to a safe location. At Harsil, another 4,000 awaited evacuation even as Army troopers rescued another 800 from Yamnotri and shepherded them to the relative safety of Harsil.

With rain predicted over the next two days, the focus today was on extricating survivors, who were without any shelter, at Jungle Chatti and Yamunotri. At Jungle Chatti, the only option was to use helicopters with dark clouds threatening to stall the effort.

When the clouds cleared up in the afternoon, the Army and IAF launched an unprecedented operation to use helicopters to start a “shuttle service” to pick up pilgrims. The aim was to pick up everyone from Jungle Chatti.

At around 1 pm at Gauchar, the Deputy Commander of the Army’s Para-brigade did a last-minute check. Then, he was airlifted to Jungle Chatti. And, the operation began!

Army helicopters from the Jalandhar-based 661 Aviation Squadron flew in for the specific task. By afternoon, the Central Army Commander Lt Gen Anil Chait and the IAF’s Assistant Chief of Air Operations Air Vice-Marshall SRK Nair had arrived at Gauchar.

The IAF commander, wearing a pilot’s dungaree, was seen managing the flow of pilgrims on board the Mi-17 helicopters from Badrinath.

The Tribune team landed at Jungle Chatti on board one of the helicopters to witness the operation. In a swift effort lasting over two hours, pilots of the 661 Army Aviation and six Dhruv helicopters of the IAF picked up many small lots of pilgrims and dropped them at nearby helipads at Phata and Gaurikund.

As the Army Aviation team, led by Lt-Col Manoj Tripathi and Major Nitin Chaudhary, Major A Anand and Major Hitendra Singh, was carrying out the final sorties, Lt-Gen Anil Chait - at the Gauchar base - checked up with the troop leaders on the ground, “Has Jungle Chatti been cleared? I want confirmation.”

Soon enough, the IAF -- flying in close coordination -- landed its last sorties. At the Gauchar base, Gen Chait told reporters, “Jungle Chatti was the toughest operation”.

Till yesterday, landing at the makeshift helipad at Jungle Chatti was not possible. Pilots were doing daredevilry by landing just one side of the under-belly ‘ski’ of the helicopter on the helipad with the other ‘ski’ hanging over the ledge. Paratroopers from the Indian Army’s special forces - trained in mountain warfare - had been dropped from helicopters on June 19. Their mandate was to search for survivors on the mountain side on which pilgrims - looking to save themselves from the raging mudslide - had climbed on to.

Swift operation

    With rain predicted over the next two days, the focus on Sunday was on extricating survivors, who were without any shelter, at Jungle Chatti and Yamunotri
    At Jungle Chatti, the only option was to use helicopters
    The Army and the IAF launched an unprecedented helicopter “shuttle service”
    The aim was to pick up everyone in small lots from Jungle Chatti and drop them at nearby helipads at Phata and Gaurikund


http://www.tribuneindia.com/2013/20130624/world.htm#1
9 foreign tourists, 2 Pakistanis killed in Taliban attack
Islamabad, June 23
In an unprecedented attack on foreigners, Taliban militants wearing paramilitary uniforms stormed a mountaineering base camp in northern Pakistan, killing nine foreign tourists and two Pakistanis, embarrassing the PML-N government just weeks after it assumed office and offered peace talks with the insurgents.

About 14 to 16 militants targeted the camp at the Buner Valley in Gilgit-Baltistan that serves as a base for mountaineers headed for the 8,126-metre Nanga Parbat, the world's ninth-highest peak.

The attack occurred late last night but the authorities were alerted today morning, officials said.

Confusion surrounded the number and nationality of those killed in the attack in Gilgit-Baltistan, a disputed territory between Pakistan and India.

Officials said nine foreigners and one Pakistani were killed but later revised the toll to 11, including two Pakistanis.

Speaking to reporters at a military airbase after the bodies of the victims were flown to Rawalpindi, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said only four of the dead had been identified so far.

They included one American national of Chinese origin, one Nepalese and two Chinese nationals.

Officials said the other foreigners could not be identified as the attackers had taken away their documents.

"The attackers were wearing the uniform of the Gilgit Scouts. They abducted two (Pakistani) guides and demanded they take them to where the foreigners were staying. One guide was killed and the other is alive. He has been detained by the police for questioning," Khan said.

The Gilgit Scouts is a paramilitary unit that is part of the army’s Northern Light Infantry regiment.

The outlawed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was carried out to avenge the death of the group's deputy chief, Waliur Rehman, in a US drone strike on May 29.

Taliban spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan told the media that the attack was carried out by a new faction named Junood-e-Hafsa. — PTI

Revenge killing

    Taliban gunmen disguised as soldiers targeted a camp at the Buner Valley in Gilgit-Baltistan that serves as a base for mountaineers headed for the Nanga Parbat (pic)
    One American national of Chinese origin, one Nepalese and two Chinese nationals were among the killed. The other foreigners could not be identified
    The outlawed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan on Sunday claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was carried out to avenge the death of the group's deputy chief, Waliur Rehman, in a US drone strike on May 29


http://www.tribuneindia.com/2013/20130624/nation.htm#1
Army officers to tread danger zone
Ajay Banerjee/TNS

Gauchar, June 23
With rain predicted for tomorrow and day after, the armed forces are set to roll the third phase of the ongoing rescue effort in Uttarakhand tomorrow. This will involve a unique effort in which Brigadier-level officers of the Army will lead teams of pilgrims to walk across mountain paths and bring them to the nearest road head for onward travel.

As helicopters are unlikely to fly over the next two days, the rescuers plan to bring stranded pilgrims down by road. One movement will be down from Harsil, while the other down from Badrinath, both separated west to east by 450 km.

Harsil has around 4,000 stranded people, while their number is 6,000 at Badrinath. From Badrinath, people will have to be evacuated to Joshimath. Roads are missing at several places on the Harsil axis.

Lt Gen Anil Chait, Central Army Commander, says: "Vehicles are in place from one road head to the other. Mountain paths have been created at places where the road is damaged or is missing.

"I will visit the routes and Brigadier-level officers will accompany each group handling people."

The Army Commander says people along the routes are being motivated to walk the distance as it will be difficult for helicopters to rescue them.

The IAF today flew a number of Mi-17 helicopters evacuating people from Badrinath, bringing their numbers down considerably from 9,000 this morning.

A local resident said: "There are more Mi-17 helicopters than buses on the road," implying that helicopters were the saviors and their only link to the outside world.

As part of the contingency plan, rain shelters, vehicles, food, medicines and other equipment have been provided at each segment where road is available.

The commanders discussed the topography and logistics using a huge map of the region at the base camp.

The Army has motivated more than 1,300 people to move on foot and via vehicles along 74-km stretch from Harsil to Uttarkashi.

While pilgrims can be evacuated by foot from Badrinath to Gobind Ghat, they can be shifted in vehicles between Gobind Ghat and Joshimath.

Teams of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police are carrying out rescue operations between Badrinath and Joshimath. They have set up a Burma bridge across the Alaknanda at Lam Bagar.

On the Yamunotri axis, Army teams that had reached Hanuman Chatti yesterday surged towards Janak Chatti and Yamunotri this morning and evacuated all stranded pilgrims there.

A C130 J aircraft carried out a weather recce in the morning based on which IAF helicopters started operations in the Harsil sector. Another aircraft carried fuel for the helicopters. Six AN- 32 sorties airlifted equipment for bridge, 50 paratroops with 2,000 kg payload, fuel barrels and two IAF disaster management communication vehicles.

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Pro-Eelam-activists-storm-military-campus-cane-charged/articleshow/20730532.cms
Pro-Eelam activists storm military campus, cane-charged
UDHGAMANDALAM: Around 250 workers of a pro-Eelam Tamil outfit on Sunday protested against the reported training of Sri Lankan armed forces personnel at an Army campus near here, leading to a police lathicharge and arrest of 120 of them.


Police had kept a strict vigil and formed a two-tier security at a bridge, three kms from the Madras Regimental Centre (MRC) at nearby Wellington to prevent the pro-Eelam outfits, holding a series of protests against the training of Lankan personnel.

However, the workers of Naam Tamizhar Katchi of film director Seeman managed to enter the MRC campus from another side, to the surprise of officials, police said.

As the activists started raising slogans against Congress and Sri Lankan government and rushed towards the campus, housing the Defence Service Staff college, some policemen stationed inside it, made a lathicharge and managed to stop them about 100 metres ahead of the training institution and disperse them.

On hearing about the incident, police on duty at the bridge rushed to the spot and arrested 120 workers, including three women, police said.

The activists threatened to intensify their agitation and launch an indefinite fast, if the Sri Lankan personnel were not sent back.

Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa has already conveyed her government's opposition to the Centre over the training of the Lankan personnel.

MDMK led by Vaiko has announced siege protest of the college on June 25, holding that training the Lankan defence personnel hurt the sentiments of Tamils.

http://www.defensenews.com/article/20130612/DEFREG/306120016/India-Adding-40-000-Mountain-Troops-China-Border
India Adding 40,000 Mountain Troops at China Border


NEW DELHI — Shortly after new Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang visited here, India has decided to proceed with a plan to add more than 40,000 troops in the form of a mountain corps to bolster its strength on the Chinese border.

The Ministry of Defence prepared the plan two years ago and has awaited consideration by the Ministry of Finance, which has given approval. Now, it must be cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Security, an MoD source said.

About US $12 billion will be spent to raise the additional troops, and the new corps is expected to be functioning within 10 years, an Army official said. Additional weapons and equipment will be purchased.

“The elite mountain corps will be able to fill this gap in preparedness, thereby adding to the conventional stability in the medium to long term, though in the short term it may be perceived as destabilizing,” defense analyst Rahul Bhonsle said.

Last month, China’s Li visited New Delhi, his first foreign visit after taking office, amid reports that Chinese troops had intruded into Indian territory. The issue was discussed during a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, though the point was passed off as “an incident,” an Indian External Affairs Ministry source said.

“The raising of additional troops to be deployed along the border with China is bound to raise tempers in Beijing,” the source said.

Analysts here, however, are unanimous that India and China can ill afford to go to war in the immediate future as both are building themselves economically.

“Given the track record of handling their military and diplomatic showdown ... China and India are not likely to go to war anytime soon,” said Swaran Singh, professor for diplomacy and disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru Univer­sity. “It’s not a strong possibility even in their medium-term trajectories. It is not in their interest and the interest of the international community, which will ensure it does not occur.

“The strongest incentive against war is their historic chance to achieve their peaceful rise followed by greater recognition and participation in world decision-making bodies.”

But Bhonsle said New Delhi must manage the issue carefully.

“India will certainly have to make extensive efforts to manage concerns that may be raised by China; [otherwise], the move will prove counterproductive and will only lead to increases in force levels on both the sides,” he said. “Confidence-building measures on the boundary and greater transparency in raising the force, including the fact that it is being positioned in the interior, should assuage Beijing.”

The Army official welcomed the new, because the service is operating at only 60 percent of its required capability level.

As the troops will be deployed in hilly terrain, new purchases will include light tanks, specialized vehicles, light artillery guns and advanced infantry equipment.

The Army also will buyammunition and small arms, hand-held thermal imagers, UAVs, aerostat-based radar, portable missiles, air-defense artillery and lightweight radar.

The service will establish network-centric warfare systems for the elite troops, including advanced C4ISR equip­ment, and information warfare systems, Army sources said.

On the composition of the weapons required, Bhonsle said, “the weapons and equipment will include the whole gamut from reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition, firepower, tactical and logistics mobility including helicopters, communications and so on. Five years for forming up and almost eight to 10 years for full-spectrum effectiveness may be reasonable to assume.”

The 4,057-kilometer Line of Actual Control is India’s current border with China. The eastern sector, bordering the states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, is the most contentious, where China claims 90,000 square kilometers of territory that India occupies.


http://tribune.com.pk/story/567099/rescuers-race-against-time-as-india-monsoon-toll-nears-600/
Rescuers race against time as India monsoon toll nears 600
DEHRADUN: Relief teams were racing against time Saturday to rescue tens of thousands of stranded people in rain-ravaged northern India as the death toll from flash floods and landslides neared 600.

Rescuers have recovered scores of bodies from the swollen Ganges river with the government saying more than 30,000 people were still stranded after torrential monsoon rains struck the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand last week.

Raging rivers have swept away houses, buildings and entire villages, and destroyed bridges and narrow roads leading to pilgrimage towns in the mountainous state, which is known as the “Land of the Gods” for its revered Hindu shrines.

Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, who arrived in state capital Dehradun on Saturday, said 73,000 people had been rescued so far with up to 32,000 still stranded.

“At least 550 people have died and 392 people are injured,” he told reporters, and urged authorities to complete the rescue work inside three days since fresh downpours were expected.

He also said steps were being taken up on a “war footing” to deal with the “national crisis”.

Dozens of helicopters and thousands of soldiers have been deployed to rescue people trapped across the flood-devastated state.

TV images showed paratroopers rappelling from military choppers to assist in rescue operations.

The family of Kavita Tyagi, 26, stranded near the pilgrimage site of Badrinath for more than a week, recounted their ordeal after they were air-lifted by army choppers to Gauchar, a hill town in Chamoli district of the state.

“We had been stuck for more than a week. We ran out of food and all our money. My three-year-old son is with me and we can’t describe the harrowing times that we have faced,” she told AFP, her voice choked.

“My mother and brother are still to be evacuated since the chopper could accommodate only eight people. We are now just praying that they too land safely,” Tyagi said.

Rescue teams were bracing for more challenges with further downpours expected in the state from Sunday onwards.

“The weather is already packing up. We are expecting fresh rains from tomorrow (Sunday) and that is why we are speeding up our operations,” Priya Joshi, spokesperson of the Indian Air Force, told AFP.

A group of 20 trekkers including six Americans were rescued Saturday after they were marooned near a remote glacier since the rains struck last week.

“They were on a trekking trip but got trapped because of the landslides and flash floods. The chopper has landed there now and they are all safe,” Neeraj Khairwal, a top official of Pithoragarh district, told AFP.

Also Saturday, the army managed to make contact with nearly 1,000 people stuck in mountains near Kedarnath, NDTV reported.

Distraught relatives clutching photographs of missing family members have been waiting for days outside Dehradun airport hoping for news of their loved ones.

The military operation, involving some 50 helicopters and more than 10,000 soldiers, was focused on reaching those stranded in the holy town of Badrinath after earlier finding widespread devastation in the Kedarnath temple area.

The Indian Air Force was transporting heavy equipment for repairs of roads and construction of temporary helipads, according to an official press release.

“A heavylift Mi-26 transport helicopter has already landed at Gauchar with 30 barrels of fuel and 70 paratroopers,” it said.

Special trains and buses have been pressed into service to ferry tourists back home while medical and food supplies were also being flown in to the stranded people.

Shinde said some of the bodies recovered from different places in the state were “badly mutilated,” making it difficult to identify them.

“The DNA of the victims will be preserved,” he said.

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna had on Friday attacked the India Meteorological Department (IMD) for not issuing an adequate warning ahead of the heavy rains, which struck earlier than expected, saying the local government was unable to prepare for the deluge and evacuate people on time.

“The IMD warning was not clear enough,” he said.

Another 17 people have been killed in the adjacent state of Himachal Pradesh where seven foreigners were evacuated Saturday from the scenic tribal districts of Lahaul and Spiti.

Floods and landslides from monsoon rains have also struck neighbouring Nepal, leaving at least 39 people dead, the Nepalese government said.

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