A soldier helps a woman at a makeshift helipad in Joshimath on Monday. (PTI)
New Delhi, June 24: A unit of army engineers, the 5 Sikh battalion and Army Aviation Corps pilots today rescued more than 800 people through a combination of engineering skills and daredevil-flying to bridge a chasm over the Alaknanda river with ropes and helicopters.
But their feat is likely to be lost in the din that political leaders have unleashed following Narendra Modi’s visit last week and claims that he helped “rescue” 15,000 people and in a Rambo-act “para-dropped” a medical team. Competitive claims are flying between the BJP and the Congress on what they have done to give relief to the stranded in Uttarakhand.
Even the army is not “para-dropping” its paratroopers. The special forces are either trekking through the hills or slithering down from hovering helicopters. There isn’t a drop-zone in the hills in which paratroopers can land. The army and the air force would have done it if there was one.
Air chief marshal N.A.K. Browne, usually careful with his words, promised today that “the rotors of our helicopters will keep churning till the last stranded person is rescued”.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who was out of the country, visited Dehradun today in what is being seen as a late response to the impact of Modi’s two-day trip to Uttarakhand last week that got the Gujarat chief minister more mileage in cyberspace than his helicopter could log.
The impression that has been created — that Modi rescued 15,000 people of Gujarat from the tumult caused by nature’s fury in Uttarakhand — does not withstand scrutiny. Modi himself has made no such claim. But his party’s state unit spokesperson, Anil Baluni, has explained that there was a sophisticated plan put together by Modi to energise and bring his folk back home.
How do you distinguish a Gujarati from a non-Gujarati in a crowd of hapless pilgrims from across the country desperately seeking succour? Besides, the Gujarat chief minister was not given permission to land anywhere beyond Jolly Grant because that could interfere with relief and rescue.
He was keen but he was denied the permission. Defence minister A.K. Antony, better informed of the situation, decided not to go to the zone at all for that reason.
Absurd claims of a rescue act in which 15,000 were evacuated in two days of a VIP visit are leaving the army stumped. An officer in army headquarters was stupefied when someone responding to the army’s official Twitter account handle sent a direct message asking why the army cannot replicate what Narendra Modi has done.
Such tales of Himalayan “Feku”-ness risks taking the attention away from those who are actually conducting the rescue and saving lives at the risk of their own even if they are paid to do so.
Between tales of buffoonery and bluff, the politics of rescue and relief is also threatening to diffuse the focus on the job at hand — that there are thousands still stranded and missing.
The current rescue act in Uttarakhand is challenging even the skills of battle-worthy men and women, not to speak of politicians. Today’s feat by the army and its aviation squadron is just one illustration of what it takes.
Although rain and strong winds in the mountains created almost impossible conditions for flying, the army still decided to chance the rescue act today because of the desperation of the people.
Its engineers and infantrymen strung a “Burma Bridge” over the chasm, created after the permanent bridge was washed out in the floods. Yesterday, the soldiers had brought down more than 840 men, women and children from Badrinath on the way to Govindghat.
But 15km from Badrinath and 5km before Govindghat, the road cum track was proving impossible to negotiate because the permanent bridge had been washed away.
To string the “Burma Bridge”, the soldiers went up and down the cliffs on either side of the chasm, tied and nailed the ends of the ropes to the hillsides and to sturdy trees.
Then, one by one, the soldiers asked the able-bodied to cross the bridge over the gushing river, holding two ropes with the hands while gingerly stepping on a third with the help of an escort. They tied each person with another rope in a contingency measure.
The Army Aviation Corps deployed two Cheetah helicopters. Each Cheetah can carry two persons apart from the two pilots. In the rain and the wind through which the Cheetahs made 59 sorties, 55 went into creating a heli-bridge — each Cheetah landing at one end, picking up the aged and the infirm, and landing at the other, depositing them and returning to fetch more.
Fifty-five sorties in about three hours not only taxes the machine but stresses the men flying them.
The job is still not done. There are still an estimated 6,000 people stranded in Badrinath. The army and the air force will be at it again tomorrow because weather and failing light — the Cheetahs cannot operate at night — made it too risky for the evacuees. Till last reports, 450 of the 847 were evacuated by the heli-bridge.
The Congress, too, has joined in the political battle over giving relief. Uttarakhand chief minister Vijay Bahuguna today was reported to have turned down an offer of 24 helicopters for relief and rescue by the Gujarat government. Modi’s office has denied having made such an offer, though.
“Some states have offered to provide helicopters which we don’t need. We have enough helicopters. Some states have given cheques for the CM’s relief fund and we want to thank them,” Bahuguna said.
While this may be a question of political one-upmanship, there are also pragmatic issues that such moves — as the induction of more helicopters — can raise. For one, can the helipads in the plains —like Jolly Grant and Raiwala — sustain the big numbers of aircraft?
Second, can the new helicopters and crew land and take off from the makeshift helipads in the hills like the aircrew of the IAF and the army can? Will they have a common communication link between the helicopters of the different agencies?
One chartered private helicopter had crashed last week. Can private helicopters operate in the difficult weather conditions of the mountains?
Despite the weather today, for instance, the IAF’s Mi-17 helicopters flew 16 sorties evacuating 402 people from Harsil on the road to Gangotri.
The one thing that is certain from “Operation Rahat” and “Surya Hope” so far is that neither the Centre nor the states have the infrastructure to address a natural disaster of this scale. Even the armed forces and the disaster management agencies are finding it difficult to deploy enough assets.
But at least they are thinking out of the box — like landing a C-130J Hercules plane in Dharasu yesterday and building a Burma plus heli-bridge near Govindghat today.