The story of the Uttarakhand disaster’s female survivors is emerging as a tale of stark struggle in hostile terrain.
As the focus in Uttarakhand moves away from rescue operations and towards rehabilitation, the severity and finality of loss in the devbhoomi is becoming apparent. And the predicament of the women survivors is emerging gradually as a stark story of loss and suffering. Being a pilgrimage-tourism economy meant that most of the men had traditionally left for Badrinath, Hemkund, Kedarnath, Gaurikund and Rambara to ply their trade — the goods, ferry services, and seasonal lodges — when disaster struck. The loss of lives, therefore, was far higher among the men than the women who stayed behind.
Left behind in the villages are mostly the elderly, the women and the infants. A recent trip by members of the Uttarakhand Women’s Federation to the villages of Dungar-Semla, Kimara, Pathali, Painj, Karokhi, Sari and Usara near Ukhimath in the Kedar valley brought to fore the tragic numbers — the number of males dead outnumber the females by 98 per cent, with 305 males reported dead or missing. Nearly 91 per cent of the men who have died are under 50 years of age and more than 50 per cent of the deaths are of young males below the age of 25. The burden of care and labour now rests upon the surviving women.
As documented by humanitarian and relief aid agencies, the risk to girls and women increases in the aftermath of disasters. In Uttarakhand, stories of women being forced to part with government compensation money, and facing violence from male relatives have already been registered. In fact, the compensation has been made out in the name of the family women, given the large number of male casualties, creating tension. Financial assistance alone, especially among women with low financial literacy and thus far excluded from asset control, cannot be enabling. In Dungar-Semla, an elderly woman narrated her plight, “My sons kicked me and my husband out of the house ten years ago. My 60-year-old husband had to go to Rambara for work. Now he is dead. My alcoholic son is threatening me for my compensation money.”
Most women in these villages were married when they were 17 or 18 years of age. They have been widowed now in their late 20s. As Kamla Devi said, “One woman in my village calls out the name of her son who never returned. She runs across the village the whole day and returns with wet eyes, hopeless.” Coupled with the violence, the severity of such trauma needs to be addressed through counselling and support mechanisms.
Shanti told the visiting team that the mules standing in her courtyard were of “no use”; the women could not yoke these mules. And anyway, the business of ferrying goods was now at an end, with the men gone. As the land holdings are small, with yields enough only to sustain households for five to six months a year, families here survive through income generated by the men who ply goods or ferry pilgrims. Now, the mules have become an additional expense, a burden to feed and care for.
The women survivors have been forced to fall back exclusively on agriculture for their livelihood and sustenance. It has heightened their vulnerability, as landslides continue to occur in the area and threaten to consume fields and crops. The threat of wild animals from the nearby forests causing damage to the crops has become higher.
It is crucial that any rehabilitation policy accommodate the specific interests and requirements of women, especially that of their livelihoods in the depleted and adverse terrain that is their home now. It is equally important to ensure that the resilience of the rehabilitation policy and planning does not merely stand on the back of women’s labour but also pays attention to their needs and voices, hitherto ignored.
In a land that worships Nanda, as the Goddess Parvathi is known here, many Nandas confront the problems of survival. The contribution of women in mobilising the demand for carving out the separate state of Uttarakhand has been eclipsed by consequent governments, which have paid no heed to their concerns. Now is perhaps their chance to redeem themselves.
The authors are Coordinator and Programme Associate, respectively, with Uttarakhand Mahila Parishad, a federation of rural women’s groups. The names of some of the women in the story have been changed on request.