DEHRADUN, India (AFP) – Military helicopters carried out emergency food drops on Wednesday for thousands of people stranded by flash flooding from early monsoon rains which have killed at least 120 in northern India, officials said.
The states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh have witnessed torrential rains at least three times as heavy as usual since last week when the annual monsoon broke a fortnight ahead of schedule.
Thousands of houses have been swept away in the flash floods and authorities are using helicopters to evacuate people and drop essential food supplies.
"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 Jaspal Arya, the disaster relief minister of Uttarakhand.
Arya said portions of a Hindu temple were washed away on Tuesday and about 10,000 pilgrims were stranded.
"The Kedarnath temple is submerged in mud and slush. We just hope that it does not collapse," Arya told AFP.
Authorities have cancelled pilgrimage trips, fearing further rains and landslides in the state, often referred to as the "Land of the Gods" because of its many Hindu temples and Hindu religious sites.
Officials in Uttarakhand, the worst-hit state, said about 200 cars, two earthmoving equipment and even a parked helicopter had been swept away by floods.
The torrential rains began lashing the region on Saturday and local officials said 40 relief camps have been set up to provide food and water to locals and tourists.
On Tuesday, 250 people were rescued by air force helicopters from different parts of the state and many were moved to the relief camps.
"But many are still stuck and it could take us three more days to rescue all of them, Arya added.
According to Uttarakhand chief secretary Subash Kumar 21 bridges have collapsed in the state. "We have lost access to several villages across the state."
In neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, flash floods destroyed more than 500 houses and government buildings and at least 10 people were killed in landslides.
A military statement on Tuesday said five air bases in northern India had been activated to speed up operations.
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.