India landslide death toll expected to top 150

Annie Banerji
AFP
An Indian villager who lost 13 members of his family in a landslide, breaks down as he sits on an uprooted tree near the site of his former ancestral home in the western Indian state of Maharashtra on August 1, 2014
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An Indian villager who lost 13 members of his family in a landslide, breaks down as he sits on an uprooted tree near the site of his former ancestral home in the western Indian state of Maharashtra on August 1, 2014 (AFP Photo/INndranil Mukherjee)

Rescuers said Saturday chances were "very slim" of finding more survivors from a devastating mudslide in western India believed to have claimed more than 150 lives as they dug through mud, trees and tangled debris.

By late Saturday afternoon, 79 bodies and eight survivors had been pulled from the site where Malin village once stood in a remote part of Maharashtra state.

"The toll is going up. It's 79 right now and it isn't looking good. We're expecting to pull out a total of 153 bodies," a National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) spokeswoman told AFP.

Incessant rains and strong winds hampered initial rescue efforts, "but thankfully the rain has stopped and now the operation can be done much faster. It's in full swing," she said, asking not to be named.

Around 160 people were believed to be living in houses in the village destroyed when a hill gave way last Wednesday, releasing a cascade of earth and trees, the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) said.

"Chances of survival (now) are very, very slim," NDRF commandant Alok Awasthi told NDTV news channel.

While India's annual rains are a lifeline for agriculture, landslides, flooding and building collapses are frequent during the monsoon.

The disaster response force, which mobilised extra 378 rescue workers, toiled through the night Friday under lights powered by portable generators.

The rescue operation could take anther two days due to the difficult conditions, state relief minister Patangrao Kadam said.

Grieving relatives were identifying bodies and attending mass cremations. Some lost whole families in the disaster.

"Life ceases to have meaning without one's parents," Vilas Jhanjre, a factory worker whose parents were still missing, told The Hindu newspaper.

"I'm shell-shocked," he said, adding that, "Our roots have been wiped out in an instant."

Among the handful rescued were Pramila Lembe, 25, and her three-month-old baby.

They suffered no major injuries thanks to their home's tin wall which shielded them.

- 'Risk of similar fate' -

"I was breastfeeding the baby when I heard a loud thunder-like clap. I tried to run but the wall collapsed," Lembe recounted.

Dramatic footage showed the chunk of hillside giving way, unleashing the wave of mud, rocks and trees and clouds of dust.

Neighbouring villagers voiced fears their homes might be next due to deforestation for cultivation.

"There were no landslides here in the past, but recently rice farming activity on the hill behind the village intensified," Govind Asavale, 55, told AFP after the disaster.

"We now face the risk of a similar fate," Asavale said.

Disaster experts and Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan blamed the landslide on deforestation and construction work on the hills.

"As the heavy rains caused water percolation, loosened soil due to levelling made matters worse, triggering the landslides," said Maharashtra environment activist Suresh Talekar, slamming the state agricultural department for allowing the deforestation.

The NDMA said mechanical earth movers, bulldozers and excavators had plucked out scores of dead cattle belonging to villagers.

The Maharashtra landslide was the deadliest of several in recent days in the South Asian region.

A landslide in India's eastern Odisha state Thursday cut off a dozen villages while another in the northern Himalayan state of Uttarakhand killed at least five people.

Uttarakhand was hit by a landslide and floods last year believed to have killed nearly 6,000 people.

A separate landslide smashed into a village in neighbouring northeastern Nepal on Saturday killing at least eight people and leaving dozens missing.