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Landslip country asks ‘where next?’

Cut off and buried under 30 feet of mud

Malin, July 31: Stunningly beautiful, achingly poor and perched dangerously on the Sahyadri’s slopes, Malin was a necropolis today.

The only way to reach this remote tribal hamlet in Pune district on Thursday, after Wednesday’s mudslide buried nearly a third of its population alive, was a 3km climb up a treacherous, torrent-swept, narrow mountain road.

As the artery of the rescue operations, led by the National Disaster Response Force and aided by local people and the district administration, the road could not be used for much other than ferrying ambulances and earthmovers.

So, the dead had to climb up the slopes for cremation. When the NDRF handed the bodies over, the bereaved villagers quietly carted their dead and wet firewood over the hills in whipping rain to a nearby crematorium.

Part of Malin’s tragedy lay in its remoteness: girded by the mighty Bhimshankar Hills, the village is 150km from the district headquarters. It took the NDRF teams hours to reach Malin.

“If the road had been better, we could have arrived quicker and saved more lives,” NDRF commander Alok Awasthy told The Telegraph.

With 41 dead excavated from the mud pile by late evening, and some 150-160 more believed trapped under 30ft of slush and mud, the toll could reach close to 200, say NDRF personnel.

Eight people, including a 20-year-old woman and a six-month-old baby, have been rescued alive so far.

The survivors who were cremating the dead in shocked silence looked like walking corpses. Not so some of the relatives who had arrived from nearby villages.

“Look at these people, descending to rob the dead. They never cared for them in life: in death they want to lay claim to their material belongings,” said Sujata Shinde, 80, who had lost her two grandchildren, daughter and husband in the landslide.

The distant relatives marked their time in huddles under the dripping thatches of half-crumbled huts. When torrent turned to trickle, they foraged through the belongings of the dead who lay wrapped in the wreck.

But none dared to tackle the ferocious stream at the bottom of the smashed hamlet that carried away more articles of daily use — plastic cans and water tanks, broken furniture, blankets and more.

Malin used to work very hard on its tiny hill-slope fields, surviving mostly on seasonal and subsistence farming. But Wednesdays were different.

“Everybody looked forward to the weekly market at the nearby Ahupe village. Many saved money through the week,” said Pilaje Sapre, a local.

“So, many of those scavenging here today are also looking for cash. However small the sum, it matters around here.”

The NDRF men continued their search for survivors and bodies through a night of vicious rain, aided by torches and truck headlights.

In the morning, as the first light crept through the clouds, fresh landslides held-up operations for sometime.

When India’s home minister arrived around 10.30am, senior district officers shooed away reporters.

The foraging relatives surrounded the minister and clapped as he declared a central compensation of Rs 2 lakh for the family of each of the dead.

When Rajnath Singh’s convoy left 20 minutes later, the scavengers walked back towards the district officials to ask how to get their names included in the list of compensation beneficiaries.

The witness

Pratap Kale will not drive his state transport bus through Malin for sometime. There is no Malin, for one thing, and there is no road, for another. On Thursday, he was at the tiny state bus depot in the Ambegaon area to apply for leave.

“I can’t drive that bus for sometime. I knew many of those who died. Many of them would often go to a nearby town on my bus. I want to get away from here for a few days -— I think I’ll go to my aunt’s place in Kolhapur,” he said.

Kale was on his way to Malin from Ahupe on Wednesday when he found a huge tree fallen on the narrow mountain road through which two vehicles cannot pass side by side for nearly 30km.

As he got down to check, he and his assistant, conductor Bashir Havaldar, heard a loud rumble. “It felt like the earth’s bones were breaking,” said Bashir. Then they witnessed the annihilation.

Bashir is resilient. Mudslides bring down a couple of houses here and there and kill some people every monsoon season, he said.

“This time it was an entire village. Malin’s residents would at times mention a crack on the hill’s face. No one took it seriously till Wednesday. We are all scared now. No one knows whose village will be next,” Bashir said.

The fear

The fear of another disastrous landslide has gripped the hamlets. Experts say the continuing mudslides in Malin make the fears very real, as do the cracks developing on some of the hills around.

“An immediate study of the area is necessary. The authorities need to survey the cracks and decide if people should be evacuated,” said Satish Thigale, a former professor of geology at Pune University.

Activists and ecologists like Prashant Shinde of charity organisation White Army, who are helping the NDRF evacuate the injured and dig for bodies, blame the unplanned terracing of the hill slopes by local tribals practising subsistence-level agriculture.

“Many of these families had been displaced when the nearby Dighe Dam was built in 2000,” Shinde said.

“They had been resettled on the slopes. After losing their agricultural tracts to the dam, they had started creating terraces on the slopes and cultivating paddy.”

Like Malin, about 60 villages in Pune’s Ambegaon taluka are set on fast-eroding slopes or are at the base of the hills. Small-scale landslides are numerous. The villages of Asane, Amade, Kondhare and Adivadde are perhaps the most vulnerable, NDRF sources said.

“There’s a proposal — but no formal decision yet — to evacuate some of the villages since the rain has not let up in the past 10 days,” said an NDRF official, while cautioning against spreading panic.

Pune district has witnessed unusually high rainfall in the past week. A spokesperson for the Pune-based India Meteorological Department said: “A low pressure area was prevailing over north Maharashtra and Karnataka and now has extended to Gujarat due to which Konkan, Goa, central Maharashtra and Vidarbha are getting high rainfall. But this will be over in a couple of days.”

A let-up in the rain may aid the rescue workers.

“We have sniffer dogs, drones and all the sophisticated equipment but in the face of this monster rain and in the absence of mobile towers in this area, we have neither any available phone network not can we access the Internet,” said NDRF commander Awasthy.

“Being cut off to this extent decreases efficiency. But we will not leave till the last body is out. It is highly unlikely that we shall find any survivors now.”

Over 400 NDRF men were at the spot on Thursday evening. But the poor road conditions meant their heavy earthmovers, ambulances and other vehicles carrying equipment frequently got stuck in the slushy road to Malin.

Most of the personnel had had to walk the last stretch to Malin as furious rapids gushed across the road to a menacing nullah that had swollen into a dangerous mountain river.

On Wednesday, Maharashtra’s top Congress and NCP leaders — chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, two other cabinet ministers and several MLAs had rushed to Malin.

Chavan had arrived after 10pm and instructed the crowds to keep away from the disaster site. He had earlier announced aid for the bereaved families.

When the BJP’s Rajnath reached Malin 12 hours later, on Thursday morning, he had been pipped at the post, local people said.