This is the first of the five part series on the hill state of Uttarakhand that suffered massive flash floods on June 16, 2013. The tragedy left score of dead. The body count varies from 780 to 10,000. Officially thousands are missing till now and presumed dead. There is no count of the death of cattle and mules, the source of livelihood for many in the region. These posts will deal with the issue of tragedy, disaster management and the age old debate of development and conservation in the Himalayas. The title has been borrowed by the then chief minister of Uttarakhand Vijay Bahuguna’s statement.
Tragedy begins when an area falls of the media glare. This is what happened in Uttarakhand last year. On June 16 heavy rains in the upper reaches of the Himalayas in the Kedarnath valley led to a breach in the glacial lake called Chorabari just above the 1000 year old revered shrine. The temple built by sage Shankaracharya is situated in small patch of land between two streams emerging out of glacier just above it.
Years ago a land slide had created a lake in the glacier and the sudden cloud burst accompanied by landslide chipped away a part of this lake. At that time the narrow patch of land had 2000 people and many thousands more were on their way through the treacherous terrain and equally treacherous roads.
The wall of water, silt, broken trees and very soon boulders smashed everything that came in its way. Within no time all the hotels, shacks and shops in and around the temple were buried in many feet of debris. People didn’t get the chance to react they drowned in the slush.
Downstream mayhem continued along the Alaknanda River. Towns and villages that came her way were decimated with universal disdain. Close to 80,000 pilgrims were stranded and the air force and army mounted the biggest civilian evacuation plan in history and within 20 days everyone was rescued. However, the moment tourists and pilgrims were gone, news media too moved to a new issue and the government efforts started slowing down due to decreased media scrutiny.
However, tragedy, like a slow burning filament started unfolding precisely at this point. The floods left the entire infrastructure in a shambles. Roads bore the brunt of flood fury and were ripped apart. In places like Agastyamuni or Konprayag a kilometre long stretch of road was washed away.
Heavy monsoon rains ensured that relief didn’t reach many places. In villages like Triyuginarayan, close to Kedarnath, 6000 pilgrims took shelter and were fed by the locals. Once these pilgrims were gone these people were left with no reserves for the coming winters.
Hundred days after the tragedy, monsoons finally relented and sunny days returned signalling the onset of tourist season. Three month period that gave an opportunity to every person in the valley to earn for a year. But the new dawn brought with it three curses. The roads were in tatters, men or mules, both of them breadwinners, were gone and tourists were non-existent. Many families had lost their bread winners and tourists were spooked enough not to even turn their heads in the direction.
The death of the only bread winner in thousands of families led to an instant fall in economic status. In many cases families were staring at destitution. To ward of complete breakdown of economic independence people started making a beeline for relief and rehabilitation from the government and the NGOs. Those who had lost their houses needed compensation. However, the problem was there was no land left to compensate them. The raging river had taken away the plot of the land they used live on. In Semi village a situation had arisen which would seem impossible for those who live the plains.
The river had chipped away village land. 30 out of 70 houses were now unliveable and two were washed away. People were demanding compensation from the government in terms of land. But there was no land. The village with close family ties was looking at the prospects of disintegrating and half of the population was forced to move to other places if they needed land as compensation.
Mental trauma apart, these people were better off than those for whom there was no land available. They were living close to the national park or forest land and not an inch of this space could be given to them.
In other cases peculiar situations led to a lot of misery. Houses that were made on the banks of the river saw their floors and base being removed due to land slide. However, as their upper structure was left intact local authorities were unwilling to give them full compensation. This led to rise in the petitions in the local administration and as a result these structures which are now not only uninhabitable but dangerous due to their instability have been left as it is. They have become safety hazard and many people have died due to the falling debris.
It’s not that the landslides have only left their devastating impact on the physical infrastructure by destroying towns, redrawing villages, destroying the agricultural land and rendering thousands of residents homeless, its impact on entire economy has been equally devastating.
Uttarakhand has no proper census on its mule population and neither do they have a database of how many mule owners there are in the valley. Due to this there is no concrete data on the loss of this multipurpose animal which serves as the backbone of local economy.
These mule owners on an average spend Rs 2000 ($40) every month for the upkeep of a mule. An average mule owner has 3 to 10 mules depending upon his economic ability. During the tourist season he used to earn close to Rs 1 lakh ($1900) per mule. He spent Rs 24000 ($500) on a mule. In a year and yet made a clean profit of Rs 75000 ($1500) per mule per year which is a decent amount to run his family in the hills. However, since last one year with the tourist season in jeopardy the mule owner’s cost of maintaining a mule hasn’t come down but his earning has vanished.
Many mule owners are forced to undertake debris cleaning work in the road and dam building work which is not only dangerous but far less paying. But they are fortunate to have a source of income. There are others who are finding it tough to maintain a stable of mules with no income. They are torn between their emotional attachment with the sturdy animal and the economic compulsion of doing away with them.
Similarly the hotel owners who had employed a large section of their own villagers or family members to man the operations are now forced to lay them off. A visit to Sonprayag from Guptkashi will present a haunting scenario where towns like Phata, Rampur, Sitapur, Kongadh and others bear a deserted look. Locked rooms in innumerable hotels lined up on both sides of the road greet a visitor who still dares to tread in these zones.
In the absence of any avenue for employment migration has again started in large numbers. People are leaving their schools or colleges to plunge headlong into work to shore up their economic conditions which have been in a tail spin during last 12 months.
Flash floods 365 days ago unleashed a scale of devastation in the hills of Uttarakhand that weren’t witnessed since 1970. However, the tragedy is still unfolding and will intensify if this year the area witnesses even a normal monsoon. The hills are still weak and fragile, rocks are exposed. A normal spell of rains will trigger large scale landslide. Residents of the area, emotionally exhausted by last year’s misery, are ill prepared to face another season of devastation and prolonged misery.