People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 28

July 14, 2013





Disaster Exposes Govt’s Callousness


Madan Mishra


THE first rain of this season wrought a severe havoc in Uttarakhand, taking a large toll of life, property and livestock in Rudraprayag and Chamoli districts in particular. There was heavy downpour and cloudburst at about 7 in the evening on June 15, and consequently there was flooding on both sides of the Kedanath Temple. This was the beginning of the disaster in Kedar Valley which claimed the life of a large number of people here. Apart from the labourers, employees of the temple committee, priests and other people related to the temple, there were thousands of pilgrims --- men and women, old people and children, healthy and infirm --- in the temple complex or in the vicinity at the time. Unable to make their way to comparatively safer places, many of these people were either swept by the floods or perished under the weight of hundreds of tonnes of the debris which the crumbling hills generated. Not only that, many of the people who were able to reach up to safer places, died later because of hunger or polluted water as relief could not reach them in time.


As it happened, the heavy and incessant rains converted the streams of Mandakini, Saraswati and Doodh Ganga around the Kedarnath Temple into ferocious rivers, which perpetrated large-scale destruction in the vicinity and even erased the Rambara halting place for ever. The level of these rivers threateningly rose up till Gaurikund, Soneprayag, Sitapur, Kund, Kakra, Chandrapuri, Bijaynagar, Augustya Muni, Silla and Rampur Tilwada, which ruined the entire valley. Not only were all the roads, bridges and culverts destroyed, a large number of houses, shops, schools, other buildings and agricultural plots were also swept away in the Mandakini basin.


Kedarnath, Gaurikund and Rudraprayag were the most severely affected. A hydroelectric power project of 76 megawatt capacity on the Mandakini, being executed by the Lanco Hydro Pvt Ltd, was under construction here. As the water diversion channel at Sitapur had been closed, the river water collected here in an unmanageable quantity and then moved towards Gaurikund, giving rise to a three km long lake up till the confluence of Sone and Mandakini beyond Soneprayag. Small and big vehicles, numbering anything between 200 and 250 and parked at Sitapur, were simply swept away. As the lake overflowed, water created the scene of a huge disaster in the lower areas up till Tilwada.


According to the local people and eye witnesses, an estimate ten to fifteen thousand people perished in this natural disaster. The loss of shops, eateries, lodges, horses and mules is simply inestimable.


While the disaster struck the area on June 15 evening, the administration swung into action only on June 18 morning. The National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) was pressed into service to rescue the people marooned in Kedarnath and on its way; jawans of the military too were dedicatedly doing their job. But the government and administration did not have any idea about the number of those who had got scattered in search of safer places, nor did the rescue and relief operations take place with the speed the situation demanded. The result was that the number of the dead went on mounting. It is clear that if only the administration had begun doing its duty on June 16 or 17, with the speed desired, and if military helicopters had been pressed into service to rescue the people earlier than they were, the number of casualties had been significantly lower. Youth of the area also died in large numbers because they did not get food for many days together.   


An aspect that did not get coverage in the media is as below --- that the Lal Jhanda Mazdoor Union (Red Flag Workers Union) has lost many of its members who were eking out livelihood by ferrying the pilgrims on mules and in other ways, and were on their own engaged in rescuing the stranded people. According to the reports received so far, of the union members who perished --- 23 belonged to village Barasu, 4 to Nyalsu Rampur, 3 to Khaat, 6 to Banasu, 2 to Wyung, 3 to Tyudi, 9 to Khumera, 4 to Bunkha, 7 to Basukedar Dobha, 53 to Devali Bani, 5 to Jaamu, 20 to Triyugi Narayan (Toshi), 9 to Rudrapur (Guptaprayag), 8 to Dewar, 5 to Dhaani, 4 each to Khadia, Maikhanda, Jaal and Mansoona, 21 to Lwara, 28 to Lamgaundi, and 11 to Naagjagai. All these vollages fall in the Ookhimath block. A large number of people belonging to the area are still untraceable.


While the disaster has left behind a deadly silence in the whole of Kedar Valley, the whole system of linkages like roads and phones, power supply etc has got severely disrupted. The whole area is now reeling under severe shortages of food, fuel and medicines. 


Members and supporters of the CPI(M) swung into the rescue and relief operations, under the leadership of Rajaram Semwal, district secretary of the party in Rudraprayag, from June 16 itself. Asaad Singh, a member of the CPI(M) district committee and one who runs a dhaba (roadside eatery) in Rambara, saved several people, brought them out through a difficult hilly terrain, kept them safe in his locality and took them to a safer place four days later.


The local people did a commendable job by providing food, water, shelter and clothes to the people who had rushed to forests for the sake of life. Putting their own lives at risk, many of them rescued the pilgrims from flooding rivers and streams. All these activities were performed at a war level, even before the administration reached there. The locals also arranged for relief camps and langars at Phata and Guptakashi. The people of Nyalsu and Triyugi Narayan also made a makeshift bridge at the confluence of Mandakini and Sone rivers in Soneprayag, which helped a large number of people, horses and mules to come out of Gaurikund and reach to safer places. One local person was even swept by gushing waters during the construction of this makeshift bridge. Before this bridge was made, the army people were trying to take the stranded people out with the help of a rope that they had thrown across the river.  


The disaster mercilessly exposed the hollowness of the whole system of Uttarakhand state government and central government for rescue and relief operations. First of all, these operations were started quite late, and that too with very inadequate resources at hand. While the local people were bringing the stranded pilgrims and others from Kedarnath and putting them up in makeshift camps at Phata and Guptakashi, the administration did not arrange for any vehicles in order to bring the people rescued from Gaurikund near Soneprayag to Phata and Guptakashi. Two vehicles of the police and Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) stood inactive and only one truck of the DGBR was used to ferry the people out. Moreover, this truck too soon came to a halt for want of diesel. It was only on June 23 onward that the administration arranged for free disaster relief vehicles to take the people from the Soneprayag, Phata and Guptakashi camps to Rishikesh, Haridwar and Dehradun. However, by that time a large number of the stranded people had moved to these places on their own, with the result that most of the 150 free disaster relief vehicles returned to Rishikesh empty. The government nowhere arranged for the fooding and lodging of the rescued people.


The prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, and the Congress president, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, made an aerial survey of the area on June 18. However, not much came out of it in time. If only the state and central governments had flung themselves into action and used all their resources in coordination, the casualties and other losses would have certainly been much less. Later, the chief minister also made an unfortunate statement --- that it would take one and a half to two years to come out of the impact of this tragedy and restart the Kedarnath pilgrimage. This was utmost demoralising for the people. In sum, the state and central governments have proved utterly worthless at the time of this disaster.


In this trying time, the state DYFI’s general secretary Madan Mishra and vice president Kamalesh Gaud rushed to Kedar Valley and along with local comrades toured through many of the affected villages. Veteran CPI(M) leader and state Kisan Sabha general secretary Gangadhar Nautiyal was in Dehradun on June 15 and 16, to take part in the CPI(M) state committee meeting. He rushed back as soon as the news of the disaster came, went through the affected villages and took stock of the situation. Led by Gangadhar Nautiyal and Narendra Singh Rawat of the DYFI, a delegation met the Rudraprayag district collector on June 23 and demanded that the relief and rescue operations must be expedited, details must be prepared about and post mortem performed on the corpses lying unclaimed, the loss of life and property must be realistically estimated, and medical teams and medicines must be immediately despatched to the affected areas where an outbreak of epidemics was more than probable. The CPI(M) delegation also demanded that efforts must be made to normalise the situation in Kedar Valley, food and other essentials must be supplied, roads repaired, and power and communication networks restored.


Addressing the media after having met the district collector, Nautiyal said the governments of both the Congress and the BJP had failed to draw suitable lessons from the repeated disasters in the hills. He said it is a faulty conception of development that has finally given rise to such a large scale fury of nature.        


In district Chamoli, the heavy rains wrought havoc in the Badrinath and Pindar valleys too. A 500 metre long stretch of a road was completely washed away at Lambagad in Badrinath Valley. Village Bhyundar, en route Hemkunt Saheb, was washed away by the swelling Dakshin Ganga on June 16 evening. While the people of this village had already shifted, along with their cattle and some other properties, to Pulna after getting prior information about the swelling river, Pulna village too was washed away on June 17 morning. Both the villages, where altogether 99 families were living, are now out of existence; all the houses there have been destroyed beyond any trace. The affected people were taking shelter in the Nanda Devi Expedition Hostel. At Govind Ghat, about 200 parked vehicles were swept away by the swelling Dakshin Ganga and Alaknanda rivers. Former zilla parishad member Bhawani Singh Chauhan, an advocate, complained that the government had made quite inadequate relief and rescue arrangements in the area, leading to despondency and desperation among the affected people.


Seen in its full fury, the Pindar river completely altered the shape of the Pindar basin in Chamoli district. The heavy rains destroyed three hanging bridges in Debaal block, two in Tharali and one in Narayan Bagad. The motorable bridge at Tharali was badly damaged. A large number of houses and shops in Tharali and Narayan Bagad were washed away by heavy rains that threatened to push the two villages out of existence. The valley lost contact with the outside world at roads were severely damaged or washed away at several places.


CPI(M) district secretary Rajendra Singh Negi and state committee member Bhupal Singh Rawat went to the Pindar Valley to take stock of the situation there. They demanded that the administration must repair the roads at the war footing so that food items, other essentials and medicines are rushed to the area in the least necessary time. They also demanded a realistic assessment of the damages, proper compensation to the affected people and their adequate rehabilitation.


The tragedy in Uttarakhand has been described as a human-made tragedy, and has once again stressed the need of a thorough review of the unplanned developmental works and construction projects. It has underlined the necessity of curbing the reckless exploitation of natural resources, unnecessary felling of trees and senseless encroachments in the hilly terrain. While expediting the relief and rehabilitation work, the central and state governments have to prepare a comprehensive contingency plan in order to be able to cope with such disasters in future, so that the loss of life and property (if any) could be minimised to the extent possible. The message is clear: Stop Playing with the Balance of Nature!