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Flood victims' families protest over feeble response

Stranded survivors endure theft and sexual assault

Flood victims' families protest over feeble response

Some relatives have desperately waited for days for news of their missing family members

Ritu Sharma and Jessy Joseph, Rishikesh

June 27, 2013

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Angry relatives of those still stranded in flood-hit northern India have protested at what they say has been an inadequate government response. Reports have emerged of sexual assaults and thefts during the rescue effort.

About 200 family members of those missing protested on Wednesday at a police information counter in Rishikesh, a Hindu holy town in the foothills of the Himalayas where the Beatles famously studied yoga.

“We have had enough. Many of us have been coming here for the past four or five days but we haven’t been able to get any information on our missing family members,” said Kishore Chand, whose relatives were thought to have been in nearby Kedarnath when almost the whole village was washed away on June 16.

About 7,000 people are still thought to be stranded after roads were washed away. Rescue helicopters have been grounded for the past few days as bad weather returned to the area which includes the four holy sites of Haridwar, Kedarnath, Badrinath and Rishikesh in Uttarakhand state.

On Tuesday, a helicopter crashed while carrying wood for mass cremations of decomposing bodies, killing all 20 people on board.

About 1,000 people have died from the flooding but local officials have been quoted as saying that the overall toll could reach 5,000.

Vijay Gupta, whose eight family members remain missing after they visited Kedarnath, said the government’s rescue effort started too late.

“Many lives could have been saved if the government provided adequate relief supplies on time,” he said in Rishikesh.

An Uttarakhand official, who declined to give his name, agreed that the rescue effort had been insufficient.

“We have failed as a system. We are not putting in the amount of effort needed for the challenge. Many lives could have been saved if we had a proper action plan to address the situation,” he said.

Meanwhile, some of the more than 70,000 pilgrims rescued from the area have complained of thefts and sexual assault amid the chaos of rescue operations over the past 10 days.

Mohan Pratap who was rescued from Kedarnath said that he and a group of others trying to escape the flooding were tricked out of their possessions when some men in the area showed them a route to safety.

“We followed their instructions [then] they demanded that we surrender what little we had left,” he said.

Lakshmi Kumari who escaped from the holy Hindu city of Badrinath said she was among a group of 20 rescued people who were together asked to hand over 10,000 rupees (US$167) to thieves, the only money they had.

“I saw some cutting the finger and ear off a dead body for gold jewelry,” she said.

Some women have complained of sex attacks during efforts to escape the flooding, said an official of the state Women and Children’s Development Department who declined to be named.

“We are trying to find out how many such cases there are,” he said.

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