A Familiar Road To Disaster

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In the holy town of Kedarnath, legend has it that Lord Shiva moved the hills 12,000 feet above land to deny the Pandavas — humankind — a sight of him. Struggling to find an explanation for the death and destruction triggered by the cloudburst and flash floods in Uttarakhand last year, people living on the banks of the Mandakini recount this myth every day. Perhaps, Bholenath did not want human beings in his vicinity, they say, suggesting divine retribution. But the real reason for the “natural calamity” might be far more inconvenient than tales of the divine.

On 16-17 June last year, the flash floods and the subsequent landslides on the course of the Mandakani and Bhagirati rivers — both tributaries of the Ganga — killed thousands and rendered many more homeless. Most of the dead were pilgrims visiting the Kedarnath shrine — ordinary, god-fearing people caught defenceless against the mighty elements of nature. While several hundreds were washed away and declared missing, many more died in the hills due to thirst and hypothermia.

According to state government estimates released last year, the cloudburst over Uttarakhand affected 4,200 villages, washed away 145 bridges, destroyed 2,302 stretches of roads, damaged 2,679 pucca and 681 kuccha houses, and rendered 8,716 animals lost. The number of lives lost was put at more than 900, injured at 4,463 and “missing” at over 6,000. A year on, it is clear on the ground that the figures come nowhere close to the actual number of human lives lost. As of today, conservative estimates put the number of “missing” and/or dead at more than 12,000.

One year later, the Kedarnath yatra has resumed with 25,936 pilgrims having visited the shrine between April and June with an average 250 people visiting a day. This is the lowest figure in decades. The scale of the tragedy was such that, a year later, skeletons are still being found every day throughout the route from Sonprayag to Kedarnath.

The TEHELKA team hiked 22 km on the new route that is still being paved between Sonprayag and Kedarnath only to find a haphazard reconstruction project that shockingly lacks even a master plan; a perfect recipe for disaster if there is to be another cloudburst, which there surely will be. In a hurry to make way for pilgrimage, the government has refused to learn any lessons from last year’s tragedy.

Soon after the disaster, the state government received a Rs 7,000 crore package from the Centre as well as a Rs 1,500 crore loan from the World Bank. The ways in which these funds are being utilised leaves much to be desired. For one, the relief package meant for those who suffered losses has left thousands of families all over the state extremely disgruntled as the most deserving are yet to get any compensation. To make matters worse, there are complaints about the undeserving having received compensation far higher than those who lost much more.

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Located 72 km away from the district headquarters in Rudraprayag, on an extremely treacherous road, Sonprayag town is the first camp for pilgrims en route to Kedar Valley. Several stretches of the road are being rebuilt by the Border Roads Organisation. A year ago, Sonprayag used to be a bustling hub with 10,000- 15,000 people cramming the town daily, during the peak season, before beginning their hike to the scenic Kedar Valley.

The local businesses currently stare at a bleak future owing to the steep fall in the number of pilgrims this year. As is the trend, even as many acknowledge the construction of dams and illegal structures on the path of the river as the reason for last year’s devastation, many more offer bizarre explanations.

“I don’t know why Gangaji was so angry… The Nepalese who came here to work brought liquor, meat and prostitution and ruined the sanctity of the place,” grumbles Raghunath Prasad, a contractor, who used to be an armyman.

As a precautionary measure, every pilgrim camping at Sonprayag has to go through a mandatory medical check-up and identification procedure. The facility run by an NGO with government assistance then issues a card that acts as an access pass. A team of four doctors stationed at the facility check the blood pressure of the pilgrims before deeming them fit or unfit for the hike. Even though those deemed unfit are not allowed to pass through the gate, it is evident that many still manage to get through to the top of the Kedar Valley. “The pilgrims are not unruly at all. Language is the only problem. Many people from south India who cannot speak Hindi come… But now we have learnt to manage that too,” say two female police constables responsible for record-keeping. They say nearly 500 pilgrims pass the gate on some days — some 150 of whom take the mule ride.

The new path that has been built to Kedarnath — a path that puts the fear of god even in the most determined heathens — has essentially been a rebuilding exercise from Gaurikund until the point where Rambara camp (9 km from Sonprayag) existed before the floods. The fact that the Mandakini has risen nearly 100 feet in Sonprayag has changed nothing. The river, flowing down a gorge 60 feet below, was not visible earlier. Today, the river, barely 30 feet in width and five feet in depth, flows parallel to the town buildings; on top of 90 feet of debris, silt with corpses of humans and mules buried underneath.

From Sonprayag, pilgrims are allowed to hike between 5 am to 12 pm only. Rugged 4×4 vehicles ply hikers to Gaurikund, 3 km away, free of cost. En route, the TEHELKA team found several stretches where clothes of the dead were strewn about in the hills.

Just a week earlier, “around 20 corpses” were found on the Jungle Chatti stretch by a State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) search party. The SDRF members believe that the bodies, in different stages of decomposition — some intact, complete with clothes, and others just body parts — were those of pilgrims who had climbed the hill after the water level rose.

“They were huddled together and died where they were squatting, holding on to their bags. The signs show they died of hypothermia,” says a Rudraprayag- based journalist who had accompanied the team.

There is a heartbreaking story behind the discovery. A father, who had lost his son in the same stretch and came back after a year, hoping to find his child or his remains, ended up finding these bodies. It is anybody’s guess if his son was one of them.

The Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) has set up camps along the route where pilgrims are provided free food, water, basic medical assistance and shelter, if required. Just before the Rambara camp, which was washed away along with the hundreds who had taken shelter there, is where the PWD has built a bridge that connects the new path to the Kedarnath shrine. This route goes through two stretches of hills — Choti Lincholi and Lincholi. Despite hundreds of Nepalese workers — many of whom are underage kids — the work is nowhere near completion.

Once the bridge has been crossed, the scary bit begins. The steep climb on the sharp rocks, which is yet to be cemented, is in inhospitable terrain, where it rains practically every day after 12 pm. Right now, this path is fit only for mules. Except, even the sight and sound of mules trotting up or down the hills on the narrow stretches, unmindful of hikers, their hoofs constantly slipping on the rocks, is terrifying to say the least.

When it rains here, it pours. Visibility is reduced to zero within minutes. When it rains, the hike must stop. The combination of water, mud and mule dung makes for a deadly slush that renders the slopes too slippery for human beings to wade through. A slip around the edges and one falls into a gorge hundreds of feet below. In all probability, you will be dead before your tumble comes to a stop.

Between Choti Lincholi and Kedarnath, there are practically no rain shelters. The TEHELKA team went with complete protection of a military poncho, trekking boots as well as adequate supply of water and electral. However, the same could not be said of most of the pilgrims, despite the fact that government camps were giving away free polythene rain coats.

The TEHELKA team witnessed several instances where pilgrims — many of them families — taking shelter under rocks with no other protection when it began raining. For the local porters, who are acclimatised to these conditions, the 22-km climb takes about five-six h  ours. For others, it may take 12.

“Exhaustion, dehydration and altitude sickness caused through breathlessness are common here. Most people panic when they reach the top, whereas a night’s sleep would do,” says Dr Mukesh Sundriyal, who is posted at Kedarnath.

The only human activity on Lyncholi used to be the infrequent passing of shepherds. Locals say it used to be a vibrant wildlife hotspot where Monals — the state bird and an endangered species — and, on rare occasions, musk deer could be spotted. The new route stands to change all that. Between Lyncholi and Kedarnath, there are three massive snow formations that have been carved in the middle for the new path.

A PIL filed by Divyajyoti, a lawyer with the Human Rights Law Network, on behalf of Keshar Singh Panwar and others in the Uttarakhand High Court, picks holes in the rebuilding project.

“What was the need to open the yatra this year?” asks Divyajyoti. “They could have waited for a year. Instead of going in a planned manner, they are building roads at the exact spot where the river rose to great heights and landslides occurred last year. This is simply madness. There is absolutely no study — environmental or technical — that was done. If there is to be another heavy rain, we are looking at another great tragedy. To top it all, there is rampant corruption in all the schemes, including the relief package. There is no accountability on how the money is being spent by the Uttarakhand government.”

It is a cold realisation that hits you as you walk on the newly laid green carpet to the Kedarnath temple; there are corpses underneath the pathway. Almost all establishments on the lower parts of the valley have lost an entire floor to silt and debris. It wasn’t long before the TEHELKA team discovered skeletal remains in buildings that used to be hotels and guesthouses. The temple itself had a fight of 11 stairs; now there are none.

Inside the temple, the priests are keen on ensuring that all the pilgrims get to perform the puja. After one such puja, a priest gently persuades a south Indian woman to make a token dakshina. “Bhookand bhairav ka prakop tha… Usne dikha diya humhe (Shiva showed his wrath),” says a priest, requesting not to be named. “Jinko bachana tha, unko bachaya. Jo mandir ke andar the unko bachaya. Bas karam pradhan maanna hai. Log aage badne ke soch mai, lakshmi praapt karne ke soch mai, business bana diya sab kuch (He saved those he wanted to save. Those inside the temple were saved. I acknowledge karma. People in pursuit of wealth, turned this place into a business).”

Everyone here believes in divine retribution. The head priest of the Kedarnath shrine, Gangadar Ling from Karnataka, provides a cryptic explanation. “Humare agal bagal mai ati badta gaya. Baba ne ek baari sab hata diya (There was excess all around us. Baba eliminated everything at once),” he says, refusing to answer any other question. At the end of the meeting, he doesn’t forget to share with reporters his colourful business card.

Private helicopter service providers ferry the privileged pilgrims on a regular basis as per weather conditions for Rs 7,300. “Everyone discouraged us from going. We were quite determined though. Except my daughter, all of us failed the fitness test at Sonprayag. Therefore, we decided to take the chopper from Phata,” says Chandramohan, 53, a Wipro executive from Bengaluru. Another family from the US took the chopper ride, visited the temple, had breakfast and gave alms to a labourer working as a sweeper; a dollar bill.

There are 535 labourers working throughout the day in the Kedar Valley, undertaking various tasks such as sweeping, clearing debris, building bridges and carrying out construction work. Whereas GMVN is carrying out construction of huts and tents, the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) has been tasked with reconstruction in Kedarnath. Nearly 250 Nepalese labourers who work with NIM are solely into construction. For 600 a day, they do back-breaking work that most Indian labourers would find too tough, say the engineers. Twenty-five Dalit labourers from Uttar Pradesh, who are employed by the Nagar Panchayat as sweepers, are supposed to get 300 a day, but have not been paid since they came to Kedarnath in April.

Work on the main bridge to the Kedarnath temple across the Mandakini was completed in two -and- a-half days (the estimate was 15 days); the NIM engineers and volunteers got extra help in the form of ATVs (all-terrain vehicles). As per Additional Chief Secretary Rakesh Sharma’s orders, a new helipad, big enough for a Russian Mi-26 helicopter to land, is being constructed behind the Kedarnath temple. There are strong rumours that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit the site and there is palpable anxiety all around.

Apart from building bridges and pathways, the NIM is also experimenting with the new courses that the Mandakini and Saraswati rivers charted on 16-17 June last year. Using massive gabions, some of which have been imported from Italy, they are attempting to divert the streams so that in the future the Kedarnath temple and the settlement below would stay clear of the rivers’ course. “The Swargdhara glacier has been diverted below to Saraswati. Even if the glacier is to overflow, it will not be in the direction of the temple,” says Kamal Joshi, 26, an NIM volunteer with a background in interior design and architecture.

Hemant Dhyani, an activist associated with Swami Swaroop Sanand of the Ganga Sewa Abhiyanam, adds, “The river has changed its direction. It will change again. The river should have been channelised properly by clearing the debris. Landslide treatment, which would save most lives, has not been done anywhere. It is clear that a corrupt nexus between the political and bureaucratic set-up is behind the opaque and under-utilisation of funds.”

As evidence, Dhyani points out the fact that despite having received a budget of 567 crore for 52 flood-safety schemes, the irrigation department had allocated only 5.66 crore by 14 March — nine months after the disaster.

Coordinating and handling all operations on top of the Kedarnath is Sunil, 24, a charming and idealistic sector magistrate. “The scale of the operation is too massive and unprecedented. Until April, there was snow. We got so little time to get everything running. But thanks to Babaji and some very hard workers, the yatra is going smooth this year,” he says.

Even Sunil concedes that there is no master plan as far as disaster management is concerned. “We have a very determined workforce supported by an able, encouraging district magistrate. But what should we do when there is a red alert? (There is one every time it rains.) We don’t know. We are building everything from scratch,” he says, even as he notes down the requirements of trolleys from Baironath shrine to Kedarnath.

As promising as the young workforce at Kedarnath are, the sheer lack of a master plan and technical studies lends a terrifying picture. It shows just how the Uttarakhand government perceived the loss of so many lives. Another completely man-made natural calamity is what is awaiting us.

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