India monsoon floods leave 138 dead

Military helicopters dropped emergency supplies Wednesday to thousands of tourists and pilgrims stranded by flash floods that tore through towns and temples in northern India, killing at least 138 people, officials said.

Thousands of people have already been evacuated after floods and landslides caused by early monsoon rains wrought devastation through the region in the Himalayan foothills, they said.

"As of now we know that over 65,000 people are stranded," Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde told reporters in New Delhi.

"We are committed to rescuing everyone now that the rains have stopped," the minister said, adding that the army has evacuated 5,000 people cut off by the downpour.

Torrential rains at least three times as heavy as usual have hit the state of Uttarakhand, often called the "Land of the Gods," where Hindu shrines and temples built high in the mountains attract many pilgrims.

"At least 110 people have died. The state government and the army are trying to rescue thousands of tourists who are stranded near the submerged valleys and Hindu shrines," said Yashpal Arya, the disaster relief minister of Uttarakhand.

At least another 28 people have been killed in the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, officials said.

Authorities fear the death toll could rise, with emergency workers still unable to reach marooned villages, particularly in worst-hit Uttarakhand, five days after the rains hit on Saturday.

Houses, multi-storied buildings, cars, bridges as well as roads have been swept away or damaged after rivers burst their banks, forcing authorities to deploy 22 helicopters to evacuate people and drop essential food and other supplies.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and president of the country's ruling Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, will fly over the disaster area to survey the extent of the damage.

Tourists have been travelling to Uttarakhand in recent weeks to undertake pilgrimages before some sites are shut down for the monsoon season, which does not normally start for another two weeks.

State disaster relief minister Arya said portions of a revered Hindu temple have been washed away, leaving thousands of pilgrims stranded.

"The Kedarnath temple is submerged in mud and slush. We just hope that it does not collapse," Arya told AFP.

Some 3,000 soldiers from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police were taking part in the rescue operation, erecting makeshift bridges to reach those stranded, said Ajay Chadha, chief of the paramilitary force.

"Things are quite unprecedented in Uttarakhand, the situation is grim and quite serious," Chadha told reporters in New Delhi.

"But weather has slightly improved so there is a ray of hope... and wherever it is possible we are making rope bridges where the bridges have been washed away and log bridges and trying to rescue as many as possible," he added.

Local officials said 40 relief camps have been set up to house evacuated locals and tourists. Air force helicopters are ferrying many of those rescued to the camps, with a control centre set up in the holy town of Badrinath.

In Uttar Pradesh, 18 people, including a family of five, were killed in rain-related accidents on Monday. A doctor and his family were driving through Saharanpur district, when their car was swept away in a flash flood, officials said.

In neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, flash floods destroyed more than 500 houses and government buildings and at least 10 people were killed in landslides, officials said.

The monsoon, which India's farming sector depends on, covers the subcontinent from June to September, usually bringing some flooding. But the heavy rains arrived early this year, catching many by surprise and exposing the country's lack of preparedness.

Nilabja Ghosh, an economist working on climate change and agricultural methods in Uttarakhand, said the weather office had not issued any early warnings about the heavy rains.

"If the weather office had issued an early warning then authorities would have had the time to restrict tourist movement and shift residents to safer zones," said Ghosh who works at the Institute of Economic Growth in New Delhi.

"Temples, houses and bridges cannot be protected during flash floods but lives can be saved if early warnings are put in place."