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Mudslide buries Pune village

Mumbai, July 30: A massive landslide triggered by two days of torrential rain buried nearly an entire village under 20 feet of thick mud at the foot of the Bhimashankar hills in Pune district this morning, killing at least 20 people and trapping more than 160.

As the wails of survivors rose from the slush and debris of collapsed thatch huts and brick houses in Malin, an indignant cry over a warning not needed added another dimension to the tragedy.

A Pune-based activist said unrestricted constructions on hill slopes in the district had loosened the soil enough for the downpour to send the slush tumbling down on the village below.

Pune additional collector Ganesh Patil said 20 people had died, according to the latest information available. “Twenty people are injured. We estimate that 160 to 170 people are trapped under the debris,” Patil told The Telegraph around 11pm, over 15 hours after the fatal slide.

He said those with minor injuries were being treated at the public health centre at Malin, while the seriously injured were being moved to Sassoon hospital in Pune. Some 66 properties, including 45 houses, had been affected, he said, adding the region had received 108mm of rain overnight till 8 this morning.

Eyewitnesses said a massive chunk of the Bhimashankar hills ploughed down the slope around 7.30am, burying more than 80 per cent of the village under thick brown mud and trapping men, women and children. The mudslide also buried a temple.

Sources said the location of the village, heavy rain and 5km-long traffic snarls on the lone access road from the Chakan industrial hub led to delays in rushing help to the stricken village.

The village, part of the Bhimashankar hills that has a wildlife sanctuary, is around 120km from Pune and 218km from Mumbai via the industrial hub of Chakan.

The first report of the landslide and destruction came from a Maharashtra state bus driver who passed the area and found the village buried in slush. Two Pune-based teams of the National Disaster Response Force were dispatched but, as the extent of the disaster became clear, the NDRF headquarters in Delhi rushed five more teams of 46 personnel each.

In Malin, rescuers equipped with cranes and earth-moving machines bored through the slush but moved slowly to avoid causing harm to possible survivors. The rescue and relief operations would continue through the night and the toll, sources said, is expected to go up.

Pune-based right to information activist Vijay Kumbhar blamed unrestricted constructions on hill slopes in Pune district for the slide. “Some excavation work was going on for creating plots by private parties or the government above the village and the heavy rain seems to have easily washed down the loose soil,” Kumbhar, one of Pune’s leading RTI activists, said.

“This is not just limited to Bhimashankar hills. This is happening across Pune’s hills, resulting in such tragedies. The Pune administration had formed squads to control illegal construction activities, but nothing has been done because of the powerful politician-construction lobbies,” said Kumbhar, who had petitioned the Pune collector to disclose information about private constructions on hill slopes and hilltops.

Kumbhar said that in November last year, the environment and forests minister had identified Malin as one of the ecologically sensitive villages in Pune, based on a report on the Western Ghats.

Malin figures among hundreds of villages in Pune that have been identified as ecologically sensitive. The list includes villages in six states, including Gujarat, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where the Western Ghats extend up to 1,500km.

Chief minister Prithviraj Chavan flew to Pune in the afternoon to supervise the relief operations along with his deputy Ajit Pawar.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed grief and tweeted that he had asked home minister Rajnath Singh to visit the village tomorrow morning.

“The Prime Minister has condoled the loss of lives in the landslide and directed all possible efforts to help the affected people,” a PMO statement said in Delhi.