'Will take more than a year to rebuild Himachal Pradesh': CM Sukhu

Recent rains in the state, the heaviest in 50 years, left a trail of destruction

PTI07_29_2023_000353B Nature’s fury: Search and rescue team officials recover mangled remains of a vehicle from a stream at Gadsa valley, in Kullu | PTI
Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu | J. Suresh Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu | J. Suresh

THE RECENT RAINS in Himachal Pradesh, the heaviest in 50 years, left a trail of destruction not only in the state, but also downstream in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. The horrific videos reminded the country of another hilly state, Uttarakhand, in 2013. But, unlike in Uttarakhand, where reportedly more than 6,000 people died, the casualties in Himachal were under 200. The state evacuated more than 75,000 people in 48 hours. The World Bank praised Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu for his role in handling the situation, and also offered help.

For Sukhu, barely eight months into the job, this was an uphill task. He was stationed in the flood-hit areas for several days as he supervised the rescue operations. He personally managed traffic at Ramshila Chowk near Manali as tourists were stranded in jams for over 10 hours.

The biggest challenge was rescuing 290 tourists stranded at the picturesque Chandra Tal Lake, at 14,000 feet, because of unseasonal snow. Often billed as a secret lake, it is located near the Kunzum Pass―which connects Lahaul and Spiti valleys―and has low oxygen, and low atmospheric pressure and temperature.

THE WEEK spoke to Sukhu about the heroic rescue operations and whether the state had been set back several years as many roads have been washed away. Excerpts from an interview:

Q/ How much is the damage so far?

A/ The roads have been badly damaged and our drinking water supply has been wiped out. Electricity and irrigation have suffered. We estimate the loss to be at more than Rs8,000 crore.

Q/ Horrific pictures emerged from the state, but your government rescued a lot of tourists. Can you tell us about the operation?

A/ Our priority was to first rescue people who had been caught in the floods; 80 were rescued. We then focused on the evacuation of tourists. I was stationed in Kullu for three days to oversee the operations. The evacuation started despite the roads being damaged. We built link roads and moved out 75,000 tourists and 15,000 vehicles in 48 hours (all over the state, but mostly in Kullu and Lahaul and Spiti districts). All ministers were involved in the operations. There was a 20km-long line of vehicles. We [gave them] food and told them to be patient as we were working on restoring the route.

Q/ The Chandra Tal Lake rescue operation was dangerous.

A/ [As many as] 290 tourists from various parts of the country were trapped there after unseasonal snowfall of four to six feet. We asked the Air Force for help. They undertook one sortie and brought back seven passengers. They told us it was difficult as there was no helipad, and that they were willing to risk their lives, but the lives of tourists could also be endangered. That was a big challenge. There was an oxygen problem and the temperature was below minus four degrees Celsius. Had we been late even by a day, it would have been disastrous.

I did the recce and sent two of my ministers (Jagat Negi and Sanjay Awasthy). They started from Losar with three JCBs to clear the snow on the roads. It took them 20 hours to clear 14km. They reached there at 2am. They called me on a satellite phone and I asked them to leave early. They left by 5am and reached Losar by 4pm. People were happy and many had tears in their eyes.

Q/ Being a hilly state, is Himachal equipped to handle such a crisis?

A/ We handled the situation in 48 hours. It is [proof] that we can handle such crises. It was notable that there was no hue and cry as there used to be in the past. You can even ask the tourists for feedback. We focused on rescue, evacuation and restoration. In 48 hours, we restored drinking water, electricity, and 70 per cent of mobile services. I had deputed 1,000 officers from nearby districts for the rescue mission.

Q/ What steps are being taken to rebuild the state?

A/ It will take over a year to rebuild the state. But we will make it functional. The first step will be to restore confidence among people. Then, roads have to be built. All the village roads have been washed away. It was for the first time in 50 years that we saw such heavy rainfall across the state.

Q/ What are your demands from the Centre?

A/ Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari called me and assured me of all help. The Central team came fast for the assessment of the damage. I am thankful to them. I am hopeful that they will give us adequate funds for the restoration of the state.

Q/ The mainstay of Himachal’s economy is tourism. People would now be wary of visiting.

A/ Tourism will be impacted, no doubt. The most impact would be on Kullu, Manali and Mandi. But we will open tourist places. Places like Dharamshala are open. Air and road connectivity is good. Palampur and Kangra valley are open, as is Dalhousie. We welcome tourists. ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’ is our motto.

Q/ It must have been a big challenge for you as it happened just months into your tenure.

A/ I had organisational experience. There are challenges, but we have to face them. We don’t run from them. The biggest challenge was the Chandra Tal rescue.