India floods: Frustrated efforts to rescue survivors

An injured pilgrim cries as army soldiers carry her after she was rescued in Uttarakhand on 24 June 2013
Image caption The Indian military has made hundreds of sorties to evacuate people, but their task is hampered by the terrain and the weather

Rescue workers are intensifying efforts to reach thousands of people stranded in the mountains of Uttarakhand in northern India after last week's devastating floods. But bad weather is hampering the rescue and relief effort. As the BBC's Sanjoy Majumder finds, time is running out.

Outside the air base in Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand state, hundreds of people are milling around, their faces creased with worry.

Clutching photographs in their hands, they scan lists of names placed outside the gate, looking for their relatives, missing for more than a week after the floods hit this state.

"I haven't heard from my 14-year-old sister [or] my uncle and aunt for seven days," one man tells me.

Like thousands of others, they were on a Hindu pilgrimage to the temple town of Kedarnath which has been the worst hit.

"Every time someone comes out of those gates, I hope it's them.

"I just want some news, any news - please," he says breaking down, tears streaming down his face.

It is a sentiment echoed by many others gathered here, unable to come to terms with a tragedy that no-one had anticipated.

Hundreds of sorties

But most of the roads leading to the mountains have either been damaged or washed away.

So the only way to get to the survivors is by helicopter.

The Indian air force has made hundreds of sorties to evacuate people. But their task is hampered by the terrain and the weather.

Image caption Thousands of pilgrims are still stranded in the mountains

"Some of the valleys are so deep that there is no way we can land there," says Air Commodore Rajesh Issar, who heads Operation Rahat (Relief).

"So we have to winch special forces personnel down to get to the survivors, some of whom are perched on ledges and slopes and are at the end of their strength."

Squadron Leader Sandeep Pradhan is an air force helicopter pilot who says he has lost count of the number of sorties he has made in the past week.

"The hardest thing is leaving people behind. I can only carry 35-40 people on each flight and there are so many who want to get on."

I join him on his latest sortie, along with a unit of Special Forces brought in to try and reach those survivors in remote areas, who remain out of reach.

After a delay because of bad weather, we take off in a Russian-built Mi-17 helicopter.

Air Vice Marshal S Nair, a senior air force officer, traces our route on a map as we follow the Ganges river.

"We always follow the river - it's the best navigational aid, especially in this terrain."

Below us, the landscape unfolds - vast stretches of land where houses have been washed away and the river flows through at a rapid pace.

Fifteen minutes into the flight, the helicopter banks sharply.

"We're turning back," the pilot announces. The weather has worsened and soon after we land, the rain comes down.

There is nothing to do but wait. At the base, the pilots and technicians take a break sipping cups of tea.

"It's frustrating," one of the members of the Special Forces tells me.

"We need to get out there urgently but we can't."

Around us, boxes of supplies lie waiting to be loaded - dry rations, medicines, including intravenous fluids and insulin - all meant for the flood victims.

It is going to be a while before they can be taken across.

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