Dehradun: Uttarakhand Health Minister Surinder Singh Negi Sunday did not discount the state assembly speaker's claim that 10,000 people have perished in the rain-flood tragedy, saying it was an "estimate" as many bodies are still buried under mounds of debris in the Kedarnath valley area.
Speaking to IANS, the minister said the estimates are based on what evacuated people have recounted to the rescue teams and to government officials.
"He (state assembly speaker Govind Singh Kunjwal) has given an estimated figure. At the moment, it is an estimate. It can go down, or it could go up. It is too early to give the exact number of deaths in the tragedy that has completely devastated the state," Negi told IANS.
Kunjwal had caused a flutter Saturday with his claim of the death toll having crossed 10,000.
Kunjwal told reporters that during his earlier tour of the flood-devastated areas of the state he had put the death toll at 5,000-6,000. "But after hearing accounts of the people coming down from the mountains and that of people calling me up and seeing the piles of bodies, I feel the toll could be well over 10,000."
But union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde clarified that the toll was 900 according to the information with him. He added that the complete figure on the deaths was not out yet and it would take some days for that.
Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna has termed Kunjwal's claim as "inaccurate".
Negi said the worst affected area is the Kedarnath Valley and where bodies are still lying around.
"We have so far cleared the 14-km pedestrian route from Gaurikund to Kedarnath. But there are many bodies that are still buried under mounds and mounds of debris. These bodies are trapped under 5-10 feet of debris. We need to clear them. Once we clear them, we will be in a position to give the (exact) toll figure," he said.
The health minister also said that during the recent visit of the union home minister the state government had requested for earth excavating machines.
"It is not possible to manually dig out the bodies. We have asked for these machines from the central government. The machines can be air-dropped, and with their help we would be able to dig out the bodies in the Kedarnath valley," he added.
"Many people who have been rescued from Kedarnath valley have recounted horror stories. We fear that many died in this stretch. But at the moment we cannot give the exact number. It is just an estimate. The 10,000 toll can go up or it can go down too," he reiterated.
The minister also said that it will take them time to give the exact toll figure.
"We will get an exact number after counting the bodies and by adding the missing persons reports filed by the people whose near and dear ones are untraceable. We are taking the DNA of each body," he said.
Negi said there is a fear that the decomposing bodies in the Kedarnath valley could lead to an epidemic.
"Our first priority is to dig out the bodies, and the second is to restore the entire route of the Kedarnath valley. The third is to see that there is no outbreak of epidemic. We are monitoring the situation. So far, there is no fear," Negi said.
Kedarnath, one of the revered pilgrimage sites for millions of Hindus, is situated at an altitude of 3,586 mt in the lap of the majestic mountain peaks and near the head of river Mandakini. It can be reached after a steep 14-km-long trek.
The incessant and intense rains that hit Uttarakhand over three days from June 14 triggered flash floods and landslides, leading to hundreds of deaths, while hundreds more are missing.
Over 100,000 people have been evacuated so far.
Negi also said that 300-400 people are still stranded in Badrinath and waiting to be rescued. The Indian Air Force evacuated over 800 people Saturday.