Seventy-nine-year-old Abha Sharma perks up the moment you step into her room and asks after her two grandchildren. Have Shweta and Aveek come back? On hearing an answer in the negative, she sinks into her armchair and falls silent.
Omkar Sharma, 53, his wife Veena, 48, and their two children, Shweta, 14, and Aveek, 12, left home along with a hired driver for the Chardham Yatra pilgrimage to Uttarakhand’s shrines of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamnotri on June 12. On the morning of the 14th, Omkar spoke with his elderly mother in Noida, a suburb of Delhi. That was the last anybody heard of the family. They were on their way to Kedarnath, but its more than three weeks and there has been no trace of them.
“I have come back few days ago from Uttarakhand after spending two weeks there in search of my elder brother,” says Gyanendra Sharma, Omkar’s younger brother and second of Abha’s three sons. “My brother Vijay will visit Badrinath in a day to resume the search,” he confides.
“I know this is a hope against hope but what can we do? Unless and until we get some trace of my elder brother and his family I will keep on searching,” he continues.
The Sharma family is not the only one to have lost loved ones in what is one of the worst ever natural calamities in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. There are many others. Newspapers are full of stories of missing family members. The English daily The Times of India has recently profiled a family in Delhi that has lost 29 of its members.
The tragedy in the north Indian state occurred during peak season, when religious Hindus from all across India and abroad crowd the four pilgrim centers from May to November.
“I along with five of my friends were on the way to Badrinath when the rain started on June 14. The downpour became so heavy that the houses and lodges located near the river banks started crumbling and in no time I saw many people getting washed away. I lost four members
of my team and it was just a sheer luck that I managed to cling to an upper branch of a tree and survived the devastation,” says Pankaj Sharan, a survivor who was rescued three days after the tragedy by an army team.
Ashutosh Mishra, a journalist with the news agency ANI, was one of the first reporters to reach Badrinath after the tragedy struck the mountainous state. Speaking to The Diplomat, he recounts “a very horrifying experience to see the scale of tragedy. I saw a father trying to quench the thirst of his young son by squeezing the wet blanket but the boy collapsed after a while.”
“Seeing the suffering, dead bodies and inexplicable tragedies I started shuddering while interviewing the survivors, sometimes my mike will drop off from my hand,” recalls Mishra, who spent more than two weeks covering the event.
Mishra believes that “no fewer than 15,000 people perished in three days of devastation.”
But Deven Verma, a Delhi based tour operator who had a miraculous escape says that “not less than 40,000 people lost their lives because more than 100,000 people journey through Badrinath to Kedarnath every day during the peak season.”
The state government recently announced that 5,700 people missing after last month's devastating floods will now be presumed dead. But it is not clear exactly how many lives have really been lost in the worst-ever Himalayan tragedy in India.
News magazine Tehelka, citing data provided by the state government, says that around 100,000 vehicles visit the pilgrimage centers three times each year. Since 2005-2006, the number of registered taxis and jeeps in the state has jumped tenfold. And since 2010, the state has built an additional 4,500 km of road, and has nearly tripled its total road length in the past decade.