When Sonia Kathuria from Delhi failed to contact three of her relatives who were on holiday in storm-battered Manali in Himachal Pradesh earlier this week, she began to look for local residents to ask for help.

Since July 9, parts of Himachal Pradesh have been swamped by flash floods, heavy rainfall and landslides, which have disrupted telephone networks and electricity. Roads and houses have been swept away amidst landslides. Swollen rivers have overflowed their banks. The police said on Tuesday that at least 31 people had died in rain-related tragedies in the state over the past three days.

After scouring social media sites, Kathuria finally found the phone numbers of some hotel and homestay owners in the area. She contacted one of them, hotel owner Ved Prakash, who made arrangements to look for her relatives in Manali.

Since July 9, when the heavy rainfall broke a 50-year record in Himachal Pradesh, Prakash said he has incessantly fielded similar calls for help. He owns four hotels in Manali and Sangla and all of them have opened their doors for stranded tourists for free. For now, 20 rooms are occupied by stranded tourists.

“Several tourists are not carrying a lot of cash,” Prakash told Scroll. “They rely on online transaction or card payment. With zero network, they have been forced to vacate hotels over non-payment issues. That is when some hotel owners decided to allow tourists to stay for free.”

Prakash is also helping co-ordinate the search for missing tourists by taking calls from relatives and passing on the information to police, or in some cases, contacting hotels where they had last stayed.

Other hotel and home-stay owners in Kullu, Manali, Lahaul and Tirthan are also providing tourists with free meals and accommodation, and helping relatives track down vacationing family members by coordinating with the police.

In Dalhousie, Siddharth Bakaria, founder of Homestays and Villas, a travel company, said that about 25 home stays connected with his network are housing and feeding tourists for free. National Highway 3 that connects Manali with Kullu and continues to Chandigarh has been damaged. “There are many tourists stranded in Manali,” he said. “They are young, and out of money.”

He added: “Our team of 60 people is aiding police in rescue operations. In Kasol, we managed to help the police in rescuing 2,000 people.” Some of them are in shelters set up by the government, while others have been shifted to Kullu.

In Kullu’s Ramshila Chowk, where several tourists are stuck, food and water is being provided by the police and local hotels.

Ritika Garg, who was stuck in Manali for two-and-half days, said she managed to leave the hill station at 2 pm on Tuesday and reached Kullu in two hours, double the usual time. “Hotels in Kullu were full,” she said. “But locals were accomodative. They provided meals and water.”

Bunty Raja, who works at a travel agency, is among the volunteers in Kullu. “I am not working alone,” he said. “We have a group from hotels, travel agencies, and home stays. We are getting calls of road blockages and vehicles stuck. In some cases we are walking on foot to reach that location.”

Raja sent Scroll a video showing locals and police are picking large stones and pushing boulders to clear the road for vehicles.

His colleague Vicky said most calls are coming of people stuck in Kullu, Manali and Tirthan valley. “We have been delivering medicine and food for two days,” he said. “Our phones start ringing continuously as soon as network comes back.”

Police, SDRF and locals help clear roads for vehicular movement. Photo credit: Bunty Raja

Captain Ajay Kanwar, who owns Hotel Polaris in Manali, said the situation has eased since Tuesday night when a local road linking Manali with Kullu opened up. “Only one side of the road is operational so there are long traffic snarls,” he said.

Before that, though Manali had been cut off for three days. “When I saw some hotels were putting out messages of free stay, I thought I should help too,” Kanwar said.

Sneha Sehrawat, who works with Treehouse and Cafe in Prini village, said they have eight guests at their establishment. “A lot of people can’t afford to pay for so many days,” she said. “The rainfall has been unprecedented and the damage immense. We are trying to help in whatever way possible.”

Vehicles make their way out of Kullu over a muddy road. Photo credit: Bunty Raja

Hoteliers and residents have blamed rampant illegal construction in Himachal Pradesh for the numerous road cave-ins and landslides. Bakaria said at least 10 hotels have been washed away in Beas river in Manali, Mandi and Kasol in the last three days.

“We should look at these illegal constructions which are not approved by Himachal Pradesh government, specially on the banks of river,” he said. “Hotels on river banks are prohibited. It can cause damage. Thankfully, no lives were lost when these hotels crumpled into the river.”

Bakaria said state government must investigate how illegal hotels and homestays are getting pollution clearances and licences to operate.