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Boulders, slush, gush of water: Survivors recall brush with death at Amarnath

Journalists Lalit Khajuria and Surinder Sharma were having tea inside a tent when the flash flood and landslide hit the Amarnath Yatra base camp in Kashmir last week amid heavy rainfall. The two managed to run for their lives in the nick of time and had a miraculous escape while at least 16 people were killed and 40 went missing.

Khajuria said it was raining heavily and they were in one of the tents close to the course of a rivulet, which made the situation worse. “Putting up tents next to the rivulet was simply an amateurish decision and lacked a serious approach on the part of the administration. …big boulders, slush, and heavy volume of water…swept away the tents in the blink of an eye.”

Sharma said it is no rocket science and even a layperson knows that even building houses close to rivers and rivulets, even if they are dry, is risky. “The administration could have thought of a safer place to put up tents.”

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The two blamed authorities for mismanagement. “…pilgrims were in panic… [when] around 7pm announcements were made asking us to leave for Panjtarni, six kilometers from the cave shrine. There were around 10,000 to 15,000 pilgrims, who had no idea where Panjtarni was and all of them were moving back on a narrow and congested track amid rain…with the help of their mobile phone lights. A stampede could have caused another disaster. We did not see any disaster management. Entire rescue operations began the next morning.”

Former chief minister Farooq Abdullah demanded an inquiry into why tents and community kitchens were set up in a “highly-vulnerable area”. He added Panjtarni has been a better location for the tents and community kitchens. “This needs to be investigated; maybe it was a human error,” Abdullah said. He called for steps to ensure such incidents do not take place again.

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Messages and calls to Nitishwar Kumar, who heads Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) that manages the pilgrimage to the cave shrine in south Kashmir Himalayas, for comments went unanswered.

Jammu and Kashmir lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha has maintained his administration and SASB made better arrangements for the pilgrims this year.

SASB claimed it sought technical expertise and created an embankment before the beginning of the pilgrimage to secure pilgrims. A spokesperson for Sinha said tents were put up beyond the embankment. “The administration put up crates to secure the tents but the gush of water that included big boulders and slush was beyond calculation and it swept them away.”

The spokesperson added the work on the embankment was taken up in October 2021 and completed in time. “…videos of flash floods in 2015 and 2021 near the shrine were also taken into account in SASB meetings but Friday’s gush of water was never witnessed before.” He denied that tents were placed on the river bed. “The tents were moved far beyond the embankment. The administration had taken all precautionary measures and that is why an embankment.” He said it was a natural calamity and there was no negligence on the part of SASB.

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A SASB official insisted the tents and community kitchens were put up at the same place as per the past practice. “The rivulet swelled suddenly…” He said the rivulet is small and merges into a river. “In fact, a small iron sheet is kept over the rivulet to provide connectivity to the cave. No one imagined such an intense and very localised heavy rainfall that evening.”

Meteorologist Sonam Lotus said the cave shrine area recorded 25mm rainfall that evening between 5.30pm to 6.30pm. “Such a rainfall is very high in a hilly area and it brings along boulders and slush with it.” He added the heavy rain was very localised and sudden. “We do not have fool-proof forecasting weather equipment anywhere in the world. Weather systems change rapidly and at any moment.”

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