Current Public Administration Magazine (November - December - 2014) - Uttarakhand Disaster - A Wake up Call: A Case Study on Uttarakhand Disaster Response - 2013

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:: Uttarakhand Disaster - A Wake up Call: A Case Study on Uttarakhand Disaster Response – 2013 ::

THE STATE of Uttarakhand was formed in the year 2000 by carving out the hilly areas of erstwhile Uttar Pradesh. It has a total area of 53,484 sq km of which 93 per cent is mountainous and 64 per cent is covered by forest. Many Himalayan peaks and glaciers are in this state. Two of India’s major rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna, originate in this state from Satopanth and Yamunotri Glaciers. The pilgrim centres of Chota Char Dham (Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri, Yamunotri), Haridwar, Rishikesh, and Sikh religious place Hemkund lie in Uttarakhand. The route for pilgrimage to holy Kailash and Mansarovar also pass through this state. Therefore the
state is rightly known as “Devbhoomi” (the Land of the Gods). Besides that the tourist delight ‘Queen of hills Mussoorie’, Nainital, Valley of flowers, etc. also attracts thousands of tourists every year to the state. The
peak season for pilgrimage/tourism is from mid-May to mid-October every year.

Disaster in Brief

In the month of June 2013 from 14th to 17th Uttarakhand and the adjoining areas received heavy rainfall, which was about 375 per cent more than the benchmark rainfall during a normal monsoon. This caused the melting of Chorabari Glacier at the height of 3800 meters, and eruption of river Mandakini, Alakananda, Bhagirathi and its tributaries led to heavy floods near Gobindghat, Kedar Dome, Rambada, Gaurikund, Sonprayag, other areas of Rudraprayag, Chamoli, Uttarkashi and Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand, Kinnaur and Lahaul Spiti districts of Himachal Pradesh and Western Nepal. Severe rainfall was experienced in nearby regions of Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and some parts of Tibet. The upper Himalayan areas of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are relatively inaccessible due to thick forests and snow-covered mountains. Heavy rainfall for four consecutive days as well as melting of snow had aggravated the floods. Warnings by Indian meteorological department predicting heavy rains were not given wide publicity beforehand, which caught thousands of people unaware, resulting in huge loss of life and property. The heavy rains, flash floods, massive landslides and road blocks forced over 125,000 people to get stuck at various places in the regions. All rivers and numerous feeder streams in Kumoun and Garwhal regions like Alaknanda, Bhagirathi Dhauliganga, Mandakini, Pindar, Gori, Dhauli, and Kali, overflown its boundaries and engulfed the surrounding areas. National Highway 58 (Rishikesh-Badarinath) an important artery connecting the region was also washed away near Joshimath and in many other places. Other roads were also severely damaged at more than 450 places, resulting in huge traffic hold ups. The floods caused many cars and other vehicles to be washed away. For more than three days, stranded pilgrims and tourists were either without rations or survived on little food in Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Badarinath axis. Rescuers at Haridwar on the river Ganga recovered bodies of victims washed down by the flooded rivers. Bodies of people washed away in Uttarakhand were found in distant places like Bijnor, Allahabad and Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh. Search for bodies who died during the extreme natural fury of June in Kedar valley continued for several months and even as late as September. About 166 bodies were found in highly decomposed state during fourth round of search operation.

Damage at Kedarnath and other Shrines

Although the Kedarnath Temple itself was not damaged, its base was inundated with water, mud and boulders inside and around the temple. Many hotels, rest houses and shops around the temple were destroyed, resulting in large casualties. Most of the destruction at Kedarnath was caused by a rapid melting of ice and snow on the Kedarnath Mountain, six kilometer from the temple, which flooded the Charbari lake (upstream) and then Kedarnath. The temple was flooded with water resulting in several deaths due to drowning and panic-driven stampede. Due to the extensive damage to the infrastructure, the temple was temporarily closed to regular pilgrims for almost three months although the rituals restarted within two weeks. Even after a week, dead bodies had not been removed from Kedarnath area, resulting in water contamination in the Kedarnath valley. The villagers who depend on spring water suffered various types of health problems like fever and diarrhea. When the flood receded, satellite images showed one new stream at Kedarnath. There were reports of anti-social and unscrupulous people taking advantage of the situation and indulging in stealing, plundering, etc. The other religious places in the hilly areas of Uttarakhand such as Badarinath, Hemkund Sahib, Yamunotari, Gangotri, and villages in those areas remained cut off for many days even though there was no damage to shrines. Thousands of pilgrims were stranded either in these shrines or en route since many of the feeder roads and tracks were washed away or were severely damaged at many places. Many vehicles parked on the roadside and heading towards Guarikund, Govindghat were washed away, some of them with even occupants.

According to figures provided by the Uttarakhand government, more than 5,700 people were “presumed dead.” This total included 934 local residents. In a massive evacuation-cum-rescue operation, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), Air Force, Army, NDRF, and state administration evacuated more than 1085000 people from the flood-ravaged area. The post-disaster assessment can be appreciated from Table 1:


1. Villages affected -1800
2. Death -5700 (This is the official figure. There are unconfirmed report that more than 10000 died)
3. Homeless -2500 families
4. Population stranded- 1,25,000
5. Main Pilgrimage Centre affected- 05
6. Roads damaged- 17000 km
7. Bridges destroyed -150
8. Loss to roads/bridges- Rs. 1500 -2000 cr
9. Loss to dam projects- Rs. 150-200 cr
10. Loss to state tourism- Rs. 1200 cr
11 Funds required for rescue and rehab- Rs. 14000 cr.
12. Relief distributed by cheque - Rs 138 cr

Response from ITBP

The ITBP was the first to respond and to launch rescue and relief operation immediately after the disaster. About 1600 ITBP personnel (300 from 1st Battalion Joshimath, 300 from 8th Bn Gaucher, 300 from 12th Bn Matli, 100 from M&SI (Auli) and around 600 personnel from 7th Merthi and 14th Bn Pithoragarh) were involved in rescue and relief operations in Uttarakhand.

The Indo-Tibetan Border Police had rescued 21 foreign nationals from remote areas of Uttarakhand besides rescuing and evacuating 33,009 Indian nationals from various disaster sites. All locations of ITBP in disaster
affected areas like Joshimath, Gaucher, Uttarkashi, Matli Lambaghat, Nyu Sobla, etc. opened temporary relief camps and provided shelter, food and medical assistance for thousands for almost a week. Around 35-40 ITBP vehicles were also used to evacuate the stranded pilgrims/ locals from disaster site to safer places. As the roads and bridges were washed away at many places and the disaster sites were inaccessible, ITBP teams made foot tracks, repaired broken roads and made rope ways, log bridges for safe movement of stranded population by using their mountaineering skills and improvisations.

Since all the communication systems were washed away in the flash flood, the ITBP had dropped its rescuers through helicopters and established telecommunication network in Kedarnath and it was only after that actual
feedback that verified information on devastation started coming in. New make-shift helipads were prepared and the existing damaged ones were repaired in Kedarnath, Gaurikund, Phata, Manwari, Sonprayag, Guptkashi, Badarinath Matli, etc. to facilitate air evacuation. Due to bad weather, helicopter did not fly on June 16 and 17. ITBP distributed food packets, blankets, drinking water to stranded population besides extending communication facilities to victims for contacting their near families. The Indo-Tibetan Border Police mobile medical teams moved into stranded areas and extended medical assistance/ medicines. All ITBP hospitals in Uttarakhand were kept on stand-by. Two medical teams consisting of medical officers, para medical staff, ambulance, essential equipments and medicines moved from Delhi to Uttarakhand to supplement existing medical facilities in Garhwal hills. Small teams of ITBP had visited border villages in Garhwal, Kumaon and Himachal Pradesh and enquired about the welfare of border population. Many villagers were worried about their limited stock of ration and how to get connected with main land after washing away of roads/tracks. The teams gave a reassurance to the frightened villagers and apprised them about various efforts being made by the government. Based on ITBP feedback, helicopter dropping of ration and air evacuation of tragedy struck villagers have also been done. ITBP has demonstrated their proficiency in mountain crafts and quality of their special training on mountain survival techniques through this rescue mission. ITBP personnel also assisted Border Road Organisation (BRO) in restoration of damaged roads and construction of bridges. For details see Table 2.


Total number of people rescued/ evacuated by ITBP- 33,009
Relief camps established- 14
People provided with food and shelter- 6073
Personnel put on rescue works/ road repair work- 1800
ITBP vehicles used for evacuation purpose -37
People provided with medical facility- 7137
Roads/ tracks opened / made- 17
Helipad made/ repaired- 06
Ropeway/ log bridge made/ repaired -10
Dead bodies recovered -275
Foreign nationals rescued -21
Causality suffered by ITBP in rescue mission- 15

Response from Indian Air Force

Operation Rahat was the name given to the Indian Air Force’s rescue operations to evacuate civilians affected and stranded in various valleys of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. It was one of the largest peace time operations of the Indian Armed Forces and may be the biggest civilian rescue operation in the world using helicopters. On June 16, following flash floods, assistance was sought from the IAF. The Western Air Command
(WAC) responded to the requests and undertook simultaneous tasks in the sectors of Yamunanagar, Kedarnath-Badrinath axis, Rudraprayag valley and the Karcham- Puh axis.

The Sarsawa Air Force Station was made the hub centre with helicopters converging from the Bhatinda and Hindon air force bases. A number of helicopters including the newly inducted MI-17 V5 were positioned on June 17 at Jolly Grant Airport at Dehradun despite inclement weather. From June 17, 2013, the IAF airlifted a total of 19,600 people—flying a total of 2,140 sorties and dropping/landing a total of 3,82,400 kg of relief
material and equipment. IAF operations covered Phata, Guptakashi, Gaurikund, Kedarnath in Dehradun, Uttarkashi, Dharma, Johar, Bias vallies in Kumon regions of Uttarakhand and Rampur, Karcham, Reckong Peo, Sangla in Himachal. By June 23, the total number of aircraft involved in the evacuation, relief, rescue, and search tasks, according to government sources, was 83 (IAF-45, Army-13, state government hired civil helicopters- 25).

The second phase of the air operation entailing support of long-term rehabilitation efforts in the hilly areas of Uttarakhand started on July 5, 2013. The IAF activated its advanced landing grounds in Gauchar and Dharasu in Uttarakhand to establish an air bridge for chopper movement. On June 25, in a very sad accident a MI-17 V5 helicopter crashed North of Gaurikund due to bad weather. All 20 persons on board including five Air Force Officers, 15 ITBP personnel (9 on deputation from ITBP to NDRF) were killed. Even after this loss the rescue mission continued with full vigour. Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne, Chief of the Air Staff who personally visited operational area said, “We owe it to the lives of our people whom we have lost, that we sustain the mission and complete it successfully. Our helicopter rotors will not stop churning till such time we get each one of you out. Do not lose hope, and hang in there.” Thereafter the IAF continued to operate till their task has been completed. The helicopters carried out their mission in hazardous mountain conditions, often in rain and fog, in what one pilot called ‘war like situation’. The IAF also deployed Air Force Rapid Action Medical Teams, with the air stations, and detachments. See Table 3.


1. Air Force Helicopter engaged -45
2. Army Helicopter engaged -13
3. Civil Helicopter engaged- 25
4. Sorties undertaken by Air Force -2,140
5. Number of people air lifted -19,600

Response from Army

Operation Surya Hope is the name that Indian Army gave to its response. Operation Surya Hope was conducted by Indian Army’s Lucknow based Central Command. Over 10,000 troops participated in Operation Surya Hope. It was conducted in tandem with other agencies involved in rescue operation. On June 19, the strength of the army in the affected area was 5600. By June 27, the army’s numbers in the mission area had increased to
above 8500. Army’s disaster response units included infantry battalions, signals regiment, engineer regiments, advance dressing stations and other medical units, logistic and supply assets, special forces, specialised mountain troops, paratroopers, and army aviation corps assets. The Army Aviation Corps deployed 13 helicopters. For relief and rescue operations, the army divided the affected areas into four axis, or sub sectors: (i)
Rishikesh – Uttarkashi – Harsil – Gangotri axis (ii) Rudraprayag – Kedarnath axis (iii) Joshimath – Badrinath axis (iv) Dharchhula – Tawaghat axis in Pithoragarh district of Kumaon division. The army’s response plan
consisted of three broad phases. Phase I, June 19-20; Phase II, June 21–22; and Phase III, June 23 onwards. By June 26, Surya Hope delivered 24 tonnes of food, fuel, medicines, blankets and relief material and evacuated 33,000, including 2715 through more than 600 helicopter sorties, Special troops, trained in high altitude search, rescue, and relief work, including paratroopers.

Doctors and nurses of Army were also deployed in the area. Initially 12 self-sufficient medical teams were deployed and an emergency medical helpline was opened. Military communication channels were provided to affected people to contact their families. By June 25 the strength of ‘self sufficient’ military medical posts had been increased to 29. An ‘Accident and Emergency Services Medical Centre’ was established at Joshimath Helipad. Medical camps were ready at Gothi, Dharchula, Gauridham and Tijam. The Military Hospital at Pithoragarh, was opened for civilian casualties. Thousands of patients were provided medical attention on dayto-
day basis. In addition a post disaster and trauma counselling centre was opened by two army psychiatrists in the Joshimath sector. On June 26 Army veterinary doctors and paramedics were inducted by helicopter and established Animal Aid Posts in Hemkund axis and Gauri Kund to take care of ponies and mules stranded in those areas. For details, see Table 4.


1. Troops engaged -10,000
2. Number of Army Helicopter engaged -13
3. Number of Army Helicopter sorties- 600
4. People evacuated Air/land route -33,000
5. Relief material provided (fuel, blanket, medicine, relief material) -24 Tonne

Response from Navy

The Indian Navy also sent a small team of marine commandos (Marcos) specially trained in diving to Rudraprayag and Rishikesh. Response from NDRF The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) deployed 14 teams (a total of 422 persons), from two NDRF Battalions, in six locations: Five teams (174 personnel) in Rudraprayag District, three teams (89 personnel) in Haridwar, one team (33 personnel) in Guptkashi, one team (29 personnel) in Lakshar, one team (40 personnel) in Gaurikund, one team (45 personnel) in Dehradun, and one team (12 personnel) at Jolly Grant Airport. The NDRF mission was to assist the “State government for search and rescue operations”. See Table 5.


1. Teams deployed -14
2. Number of Battalions involved- 02
3. Number of locations where teams deployed- 06
4. Number of People Rescued/evauated -9600
5. Number of dead bodies rusticated -302
6. Number of medical teams deputed -04
7. Causality suffered by ITBP in rescue mission -9

Response by Uniform Forces vs State Preparedness

The ITBP, Army, and the IAF’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Uttarakhand, has been widely applauded. The performance of the NDMA, NDRF and state administration has been widely criticised for their tardy response, ill-preparedness and for failing miserably. The Government of Uttarakhand, and Vijay Bahuguna, the then Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, have been blamed for not taking heed of the meteorological department’s
warning and failing to issue timely evacuation advisory. Some have suggested that it was not a natural disaster but a man made disaster. However, the Chief Minister denied it. He also claimed that “there was no delay” in state response. More than a lakh people were evacuated without any law and order problem. He was of the view that calamities are not in government control. There have been allegations that the Uttarakhand
government was slow in seeking military’s assistance, and inept in coordination. Three crucial days were lost because of the delayed action.

Lessons Learnt and Recommendations

Based on feedback received from rescuers and affected population as well as state administration the lessons learnt have been listed out below.

(i) Precautionary steps by State administration were not adequate in foreseeing eventualities of this magnitude. India has an elaborate multi-tier and multi-agency natural disaster and flood early warning system, both at the Central and the state levels. Federal nodal agencies responsible for providing early warning are:

  • Floods—Central Water Commission
  • Landslide hazard – Geological Survey of India (GSI)
  • Avalanche – Defence Research & Development Organization (DRDO)
  • Disaster Management Support (DMS)
  • Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)
  • Weather—Indian Meterological Department (IMD).

None of these agencies except the Indian Meteorological Department is known to have provided early warning of the Himalayan Tsunami that struck Uttarakhand in June 2013.

(ii) Even after meteorological departmental warning, no specific step was taken to stop/evacuate the pilgrims from vulnerable centres. On June 13, 2013: Meteorological Department (IMD), Dehradun, forecast “heavy to very heavy rainfall in the upper regions of Uttarakhand in the next 48 to 72 hours”. The Central Government, Uttarakhand Government, and National Disaster Management Authority, ignored the warning. Even the warning by the IMD of unseasonal rain and snow in the upper reaches of the Himalayas, the impending floods, and the recommendation to move people to safer places, had little effect. Uttarakhand Chief Secretary dismissed
the IMD warning and advisory as routine. Neither the State, which is primarily responsible for disaster management, or the Central government, paid any attention to the early warning. No warning or advisory was issued by the State government to the residents of the affected areas or the more vulnerable pilgrims.

(iii) Nowadays Chardham pilgrimage has become more of a family/ village outing programme. This has increased inflow beyond what the hill region can take. Fixed and time bound programme out sourced to tour operators leave no cushion time for any delay or waiting period. The tour operators wanted somehow to complete their agreement package. This kind of commercialisation, noncooperation towards state administration, inadequate deployment of state police are some of the aggravating factors for such a big loss.

(iv) Being a seasonal activity, regular staff to manage each axis was limited. Bulk of the staff was on temporary assignment just for the season. This makeshift arrangement leads to casual approach from the officials deputed since they know it is only a temporary duty.

(v) No daily briefing or update on weather was given to police personnel at cutting edge. The regulatory system to control day-wise inflow of pilgrims to Kedarnath, Badrinath, Hemkund Sahib, Gangotri and Yamunotri were either weak or inadequate. The pilgrims passing through each check post should have been accounted properly for a regulated movement.

(vi) Pressure from different groups like shopkeepers, taxi operators, horse /mule handlers, porters, tour operators, mandir committee and many other interest groups to push in as many pilgrims as possible for their respective gains overlooking the limited facilities available. In a nut shell business interests had taken the priority over risk factors and security aspects.

(vii) The local villagers were also severely affected. They were busy in saving themselves. In normal disasters the local population comes forward for rescue but in this case local population and pilgrims both were severely affected and lost their lives.

(viii) The helicopters could not operate on the first two days due to bad weather. It could not land at many locations where pilgrims were stranded since no helipad or open patches were available. The bad weather and washing away of tracks and roads added to the agony. It is essential that in a mass scale evacuation road /track has to be opened for tangible results.

(ix) Out of enthusiasm and in search of escape routes many lost their way, got exhausted/ dehydrated and died. Many got separated from family or group and lost hope and died. In some cases for own survival the group was forced to leave the tired ones behind.

(x) Isolated places explored by pilgrims to save themselves became a trap for them since they did not get food, water or helicopter lift.

(xi) Even though helplines were established at state headquarters and Central Armed Force Campuses, individual specific information were very limited. The relatives and families of the victims from all over the country were very anxious to get information but hardly any information of specific nature was available.

(xii) The national level coordination was very good. Regular Crisis Management meetings were held at Delhi and Dehradun for macro level coordination but micro level state machinery was finding it very difficult to implement the decisions and directions.

(xiii) In a week time, combined efforts of ITBP, Army, Air force, State administration and voluntary agencies somehow pulled out all stranded survivors and evacuated them to Haridwar/Rishikesh/ Dehradun and further to their native place.

(xiv) In pre disaster period itself the area should have been surveyed and wherever possible helipads marked and alternative escape routes should have been identified by state disaster management agencies.

(xv) The environmental concern and planned development has taken a back seat. Planting of more trees in hilly area to check soil erosion and landslide was also forgotten. The illegal deforestation invites frequent landslides. The roads constructed in haphazard manner, new resorts and hotels built on fragile riverbanks and more than 70 hydroelectric projects in the watersheds of the state led to a “disaster waiting to happen” as termed by certain environmentalists. The environmental experts reported that the tunnels built and blasts undertaken for the 70 hydroelectric projects contributed to the ecological imbalance in the state.

(xvi) The disaster has been officially termed a natural calamity caused by cloudbursts and unprecedented heavy monsoon. However, the true cause of this tragedy is growth of tourism, unchecked rapid increase of roads, hotels, shops, multi-storey buildings, and other environmental degradation in an ecologically fragile area.

(xvii) More than 220 power and mining projects are running in 14 river valleys in Uttarakhand. Several rivers are being diverted through tunnels for these projects. Rapid growth of hydroelectricity dams disrupted the water balances of the area. This was also a contributory factor to this disaster.

(xviii)The law and order issues such as controlling stranded population, regulating air evacuation, traffic control, keeping an eye on antisocial elements are also important aspects in disaster response of mass scale. The VIP culture and expectation of out of turn priority by influential people over injured, children, women, aged, etc. for helicopter lift also caused difficulties to rescuers.

(xix) Local inhabitants should be made aware of the dangers posed by a natural disaster. The camps, dwelling places, siting of villages must be in open areas. The sites prone to shooting boulders, landslides, avalanche or areas just below steep hills / mountains are to be avoided. The local population also to be told that any pre-warning or observation of prolonged rain, landslides, falling of rocks, shooting stone should be taken seriously.

(xx) The district administration was found lacking in organising coordination meetings during preparatory stage with ITBP, local units of Army/GREF. The periodical coordination meeting should be encouraged and ensured to sort out implementation problems at grassroots level.

(xxi) The communication network normally gets disrupted in a disaster. Hence a proper plan for alternative satellite based communication is desirable. During the response operation, country had to import such sets from Hong Kong since those were not readily available within the country. Of course these sets were very handy and useful.

(xxii) The ITBP being the regional responder a rescue team comprising of mountaineering trained personnel should be placed at every Battalion headquarters, Border out posts, pickets and detachment for immediate response. In disaster response time is a crucial factor for saving lives. Proximity was the major advantage to the ITBP to respond fast in Uttarakhand. The rescue team so formed should have required equipments to survive for at least 10 days. They should also have night operation capabilities too. It is desirable that all ITBP personnel posted in forward area compulsorily undergo a capsule disaster response course before their induction. Similarly all ITBP posts/transit camp should have satellite telephones for alternate communication in addition to their wireless sets. The post should also keep a standard medical kit always ready.


The basic responsibility for disaster response in India is that of the state government. The Central government plays a supportive role. The nodal Ministry in the Central government for management of natural disasters is the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). When calamities are of severe nature, the Central government is responsible for providing aid and assistance to the affected state including the deployment of Armed Forces, Central Armed Police Forces, National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), communication, air assets, etc. The response of the Central government is based on gravity of a natural calamity and the scale of the relief operation. The apex body for disaster management in India, mandated by the Disaster Management Act 2005 is the National Disaster Management Authority. In Uttarakhand disaster though the Centre was more than willing to help, the state machinery at grassroots level was not geared up to execute it at field level. The discipline and selfless service rendered by men in uniform somehow succeeded in evacuating the stranded population. However, it is high time to learn from mistakes and organise at grassroots machineries during preparatory stage. Uttarakhand disaster of such a severe magnitude may be a wakeup call to all of us.


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