Fears of disease in flood-hit northern India

Indian officials stepped up efforts on Tuesday to prevent an outbreak of disease in the northern Himalayan region devastated by landslides and flash floods, as rains hampered the rescue of thousands still stranded.

Workers sprayed disinfectant amid concerns about disease from the bodies of hundreds of people who perished when floods hit the state of Uttarakhand, known as the "Land of the Gods" for its revered Hindu shrines.

"We are spraying disinfectant in the flood-affected areas to prevent the spread of water-borne diseases," state medical officer K.D. Sharma said.

The move came as fresh rains and landslides hampered efforts by the military to evacuate some 6,000 pilgrims and tourists still stranded throughout the state since the floods hit on June 15.

Raging rivers swept away houses, buildings and even entire villages in the state, which was packed with travellers in what is a peak tourist season. More than 1,000 bridges have been damaged along with roads, cutting off hard-hit villages and towns.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon said he was saddened by the disaster, which has killed some 1,000 people.

"The secretary-general is saddened by the loss of life, and the damage to homes and infrastructure in India as a result of the torrential floods in the northern state of Uttarakhand over the last week," a statement from his spokesperson said.

Officials have stepped up preparations for a mass cremation of victims in the hard-hit holy town of Kedarnath, amid health concerns, with tonnes of wood flown by helicopter into the area. The cremation had been expected to go ahead on Tuesday but has now been delayed by the downpours, an official said.

A police official in charge of organising the cremations said belongings and documents recovered from bodies will be used to help with identification while DNA samples will also be collected.

"Under no circumstances can we allow an outbreak of an epidemic," senior disaster management official K.N. Pandey told AFP.

"We have reports that many stranded people are suffering from diarrhoea and other ailments and have decided to cremate the corpses near the Kedarnath shrine," he said.

A senior official warned that the death toll of 1,000 could rise dramatically as the grim task of collecting the bodies from rivers and from under flattened villages and other debris continues.

"From the feedback we are getting from people on the ground, people working in scavenging bodies, our estimate is the toll could be anything between 4,000 and 5,000," a senior disaster management official who did not want to be named told AFP.

Helicopters and soldiers have evacuated tens of thousands of people from the floods, while tonnes of food and other emergency supplies have been dropped to those still stranded. Unmanned drones have also been deployed to scan the thick jungles to find those still awaiting rescue, officials said.

Thousands of soldiers along with the Indo-Tibetan Border Police have been evacuating people by foot, using harnesses and erecting rope bridges across flooded rivers to help them to safety.