The Floods Still Haunt

Exactly a year after the Uttarakhand tragedy that claimed thousands, Hardnews revisits the devastated areas to survey the lives of those who were irredeemably affected

Sadiq Naqvi Ukhimath/Joshimath/Kedar Valley/Dehradun


Rajkumar tiwari has had the misfortune of being struck by natural disasters two consecutive years. “I was in Kedarnath in 2012 when I got a late-night call informing me of a cloudburst in my village. I walked all night and somehow managed to reach my house, only to find it reduced to rubble. My father, mother, and son, who were sleeping when this happened, all got swept away. Only my wife
managed to escape,” he recounts the horrible tragedy.

And then in June 2013, the full fury of the Kedarnath valley disaster dealt a deadly blow. “It destroyed whatever had remained,” Tiwari, who is a priest in the Kedarnath temple, narrates with a feeling of numbness.

With a meagre Rs 1 lakh that he got as compensation, Tiwari moved to Rishikesh: “I couldn’t build a house with that kind of money and there was no one left in the village.”

When his house got swept away the first time, it took Tiwari eight months to muster courage and go back to Kedarnath. But little did he know what was about to hit this temple town nestled at the base of the Kedar  peak, close to the holy Chorabari lake from which the two revered rivers, Mandakini and
Saraswati, originate. He remembers it was raining unusually, around June 14. “One could see water seeping out from the rocks, with boulders falling over each other,” he says. It was indeed a deadly day. “By the evening, the mighty river had taken with it the Shankaracharya Ashram and some 25 people,” Tiwari narrates.
A couple of hours later, Tiwari and a few others decided to come out and help the people who were still stuck in the debris. “The police and the SDM were all scared and holed up in their rooms. We, along with a couple of armymen, went around town rescuing people,” he claims.

But the worst was yet to come.
“The river had made a gorge behind the temple, so we thought no matter how much it rains, we will be safe. I went back late in the night and slept,” he says. However, at six in the morning, he was awoken by a loud sound. “It was so scary that I jumped from my bed and rushed to the temple. Within two minutes, the time it took for me to get to the temple gate, the debris was already there,” Tiwari recounts. Within seconds the water had reached inside. “It was chaos. Some 200 people inside the temple were standing in five-foot-deep water. It receded in five to six minutes when the other gate of temple was opened,” he says.
The heavy rains had melted part of the Chorabari glacier, causing it to fall into its lake, and wreaking wide-scale destruction and havoc for several hundred kilometres downstream.

When he came out, all Tiwari could see were hundreds of people screaming for help, as they were being swept away by the river. “I could only see their legs,” Tiwari recounts. There was no help in sight the whole day. “It was only in the evening when a helicopter did an aerial survey that we felt some reassurance,”
he says.

Although the official estimate of the deaths caused by the floods are just over 5,500, many claim that the real number was at least three times more. Many, like Rakesh, a driver, were saved by the skin of their teeth; he survived by clinging on to the branches of a tree for two days while 27 of his colleagues drowned. 

In sonprayag, the new base camp for the Kedarnath trek, a fully functional and modern registration office has come up. “We have started registering each and every yatri, even taking their biometric information,” says an official. Till last year, there was no mechanism in place to know how many people had left for the trek, one of the primary reasons why the government still has not been able to arrive at the exact number of people who died in the tragedy. Once a buzzing town with thousands of yatris who would come and stay for the night in the lodges, it is now mostly deserted. “There were many lodges on the banks of the river,” says a local, pointing towards a now-docile Mandakini, “but many of them got swept away”. So powerful was the surge that some bridges that were 100 feet above the river crumbled and got washed away. Like an animal gone berserk, the Mandakini has altered the landscape of the entire valley.    
Five kilometres upstream, Gauri Kund, which was once accessible by road and used to serve as a base camp for the Kedarnath trek, stands in ghostly silence. The road now abruptly ends a couple of kilometres after Sonprayag and one has to walk three km on a steep mountain to get to this town. Most shops and houses are locked. “I came here 20 years ago and started a business of blankets. Nothing is left now,” says Liyaqat Hussain. Originally from Kashipur, Hussain would come to Gauri Kund in the Yatra season every year. His shop, too, succumbed to the floods. “I have not got any compensation for the shop,” he complained.

Pankaj Goswami, from Gauri village, is distraught. “We want the government to build this road again,” he says. “I had to open this small kirana (grocery) store after last year’s floods took away my means of living”. Goswami was one of the 387 doli (palanquin) owners registered with the union. “I had 10 dolis which would fetch me Rs 250 each per day as rent. Life was good and we could make enough money in the Yatra season to last the entire year,” he says. “But the river took away everything: dolis, the counter, and of course the people who carried them. Now there is no business”. But the government did give him Rs 1 lakh as compensation. “There are noyatris. Even the few yatris who come either eat at the langar or take the chopper straight to the shrine. There is no business,” he said.

In a state where agriculture is tough to practise, the economy of the entire region rides on the Char Dham Yatra. And this is precisely why last year’s floods have left the state and its people in tatters. “We would get
`4,000 for every trip we would make to Kedarnath, which was equally divided among four of us,” says Gopal Lal. A palanquin-bearer, he is one of the few lucky ones to survive. “I came back to my village, Kunjethi Malla, on June 15 after noticing heavy rains,” he says. Lal now works as a daily wager. “We were fortunate that some humanitarian organisations, like Save the Children, helped us with agricultural tools. The government has not done anything,” he says.

Meanwhile, Rajendra Prasad, another resident of Kunjethi, was not so lucky. Prasad and his son, Satish, had a business of providing mules to take the pilgrims to Kedarnath. Both of them were in Gauri Kund when the floods struck in the morning. “We were informed that they were among those who couldn’t survive,” says Ashish, Prasad’s younger son. “I was in Delhi, working as an assistant to a doctor. But after the tragedy I have not gone back,” he says. The `10 lakh compensation the family got for the two deaths and the
`1 lakh it received for the mules have gone for the repayment of loans. “He had bought the mules on loan, which we had to repay,” says Ashish, adding that the rest of the money was spent on his ailing mother’s treatment. He, too, now works as a daily wager.

Life in these remote villages in Kedar valley is tough. Even for minor illnesses, the people of Kunjethi have to go to Gupt Kashi, which is an hour away. “People with serious ailments have to travel as far as Srinagar,” says Ashish. Even the children have to walk three km to Kalimath for high school, and eight km for senior school. College students have to go to Agast Muni, which is 28 km away. “On top of it, all these areas were inaccessible for most of the last one year. We had to walk for several km from Ukhimath to deliver aid,” says Rahul Choudhary, an aid worker from Save the Children. “Children, in fact have been the worst affected. Not only their schools were destroyed,but also they bore the trauma of death and devastation. The government has done a good job, but a lot needs to be done,” says Pradeep Kumar, state co-ordinator, Save the Children, India.

Even in the adjoining Alaknanda valley, where the Alaknanda originates from Badrinath, routes are replete with destruction, albeit with much lesser loss of human life. “Not even our elders had seen a tragedy of this scale,” said a primary school teacher.  

In Arudi village, a few km ahead of Govind Ghat, Jagweer Singh had 15 nalis of agricultural land and a small lodge where yatris would stay on their way to Badrinath. “When the tragedy struck in Kedarnath, some of the water also got diverted into the Alaknanda, resulting in massive floods. My land was washed away,” Singh says, adding that he and three brothers got `50,000 each for the land loss from the government.

In neighbouring Padgashi, a similar story unfolds. Most people either had mules or lodges or were dependent on their agricultural land in Kheraghat on the other side of the river. “The entire Kheraghat village is in the Alaknanda now,” says Buddhi Lal. “As a result, there is no grazing ground for the livestock, no paddy, and no tulsi either, from which we would make garlands that would be offered to Lord Badri by the yatris. Although the government gave `2 lakh for the loss of land, they haven’t given any money for three houses which were destroyed in the tragedy,” he says. Interestingly, Jaypee, the corporate group that has a mega power project along the Alaknanda, too, paid Rs 1 lakh each as compensation to all the families in Arudi and Padgashi. “It was Jaypee that saved us from the floods. Had the dam not been there, the entire area would have been submerged,” says Lal.

But that’s just one aspect of the story that fails to factor in the large-scale impact of a network of dams. Uttarakhand has more than 700 small and big hydro power projects on the many streams and rivers. A local schoolteacher said: “The mindless construction of dams is blocking the natural flow of the river. Of course, if the river can’t flow naturally, it’s bound to breach its banks, and such tragedies are bound to happen.” He added that the massive number of yatris, too, is responsible for this. “To cater to the thousands of yatris and the tourists, you build restaurants, hotels and lodges. This is a very fragile ecosystem,” he says. “If you have any doubts, look at the Lambagarh stretch, which is a landslide- prone zone. The landslides began only after Jaypee came and started building roads for its hydro project in 1996” .

Tiwari echoes this sentiment. “If you remove ‘I’ from Shiva, it becomes ‘shav’, a dead body. Perhaps this flood was his way of bringing things back to how they were before we, humans, decided to alter the whole landscape. “We owe our identity and our livelihood to him. No matter what, we will continue to go to Kedarnath,” he informs us resolutely, as he gets ready for another trip to the shrine.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2014