Mighty Alaknanda swallows almost entire city; houses lying buried under sand and silt

First there was the smell of petrichor. Then a light drizzle. Soon, it began to rain. Ankit Raturi who lives by the banks of the mighty Alaknanda here watched his mother gather clothes from the terrace. There was nothing unusual about the day, except it had begun to pour. As the night of June 16 turned to morning, water began to enter their house.

“We are used to rain here, but at 7.30 a.m. we were woken up by an announcement that was being made by the administration. They said the level of water was rising. I went out to check and there was water around my ankles,” he recalls.

Even that was not alarming enough for the Srinagar residents; it is a place where the weather has many transient moods.

‘It happened suddenly’

“Now we can’t even pinpoint when the water rose so high that we had to run for our lives. It happened so suddenly, in 15 minutes the water rose so high that five cows drowned immediately,” he says, in between removing shovelfuls of sand that has buried the house and everything else in sight.

The phenomenon is almost transcendental for the residents of this town on the left bank of the Alaknanda. “The river just seemed to change its course, as if to swallow everything here. Everything we owned is gone. And there is no telling how we will ever be able to get rid of this sand,” Mr. Raturi says, pointing to the vast stretches of sand.

A JCB machine sent by the government to help, is being pulled out of the ground. It is no match for the silt that the river has deposited everywhere. “My friends are here to help. We try to shovel out the sand so that we can try and recover whatever we can,” he says.

Rakesh Jhaknola an instructor at the ITI is at a loss, he doesn’t know where to begin. The campus is destroyed. “You can touch the roof of the building if you stand on your toes. And this building was at least six metres high,” he says.

Houses, vehicles, buildings are all enveloped in sand. Srinagar needs to be excavated.

And what might seem to be mere material destruction and monetary loss is more than that. It is a lifetime’s savings gone in a flash and there is no hope of ever being able to recover or rebuild.

“You think I will ever be able to build a house again. All this…” Ram Kot, an octogenarian with tears rolling down his face asks. He retired from the State Horticulture Department in the 90s and used every penny from his savings and retirement fund to build the house.

“This deodar wood is ruined, I paid Rs. 34,000 for painting the house in March, the fridge is ruined… the fans too. Nothing can be salvaged,” he weeps. He thanks the Divya Jyoti Jagrati Sansathan (DJJS), which is running a relief camp in the area for keeping him alive. “The government has given me Rs. 9000 and a blanket so far. I took it because I didn’t want to turn it down,” he says.

The whole neighbourhood has a story of loss to tell. A family that moved into their new home three months ago, another that built a new floor for their just-married son, and another whose car, stuck in silt by the main road has become the town’s new landmark. A priest at the crematorium stayed atop a tree for three days as the silt carrying Alaknanda kept rising and eventually raised the banks by nearly 40 feet.

A few feet away, men training to be officials at the Sashastra Seema Bal are trying hard to not look at their damaged building. They are trying to keep up their morale, and scale their performance to their commanding officer’s expectations. It is noon, hot and sultry and there is the smell of death everywhere.

“We are worried about the outbreak of diseases. Everyone is wearing face masks, the stench is overwhelming,” says Swami Vishalananda of the DJJS.

The organisations, along with several others, are shifting focus on epidemic prevention. “This stench is an indication that there are bodies buried under, the river threw out fish, but we are sure it also brought down bodies as well. Our immediate concern is to prevent the outbreak of diseases and we are doing whatever we can,” he says.

Wild animals pose threat

Villages around Srinagar, are coping with another problem, unclaimed bodies of both humans and animals have become fodder for the wild beasts.

“In Kandara village in Chamoli we saw bodies mutilated by animals. The locals told us they have spotted wild animals roaming the streets,” Swami Vishalananda says as he shows clips of detached limbs clicked on his phone.

“People here blame the GVK dam for not channelling the sand properly, then there is the legend of the Dhari Dev idol that was displaced from its original location for the construction of a 330 MW Alaknanda Hydro Power Project. Whatever the reason, the city is destroyed,” says another resident.

Nature’s fury, a displeased deity or man’s own folly, whatever led to Srinagar’s destruction is debatable, but for its people the hope of rebuilding their future is just as vacant and stark as the sand that has engulfed the city.

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