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.

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