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Updated: June 26, 2013 00:31 IST

The untold story from Uttarakhand

Ravi Chopra
Comment (44)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
The Hindu

While the focus is on pilgrims, nobody is talking about the fate of boys and men who came from their villages in the Mandakini valley to earn during the yatri season

It is one week since Uttarakhand’s worst disaster in living memory. Flash floods resulting from extremely intense rainfall swept away mountainsides, villages and towns, thousands of people, animals, agricultural fields, irrigation canals, domestic water sources, dams, roads, bridges, and buildings — anything that stood in the way.

A week later, media attention remains riveted on the efforts to rescue tens of thousands of pilgrims and tourists visiting the shrines in the uppermost reaches of Uttarakhand’s sacred rivers. But the deluge spread far beyond the Char Dhams — Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath — to cover the entire State. The catchments of many smaller rivers also witnessed flash floods but the media has yet to report on the destruction there. Eyewitness accounts being gathered by official agencies and voluntary organisations have reported devastation from more than 200 villages so far and more affected villages are being reported every day. Villagers whose homes, lands and animals have been swept away by the floods are in a state of shock trying to imagine day-to-day survival without their basic livelihood assets.

Distorted coverage

The national media’s focus on the plight of tourists has grossly distorted the true nature of the tragedy even in the Char Dham area. It has not reported on the fate of the thousands — almost all male — who come from the villages in these valleys (and elsewhere) to earn a major part of their families’ annual income on the yatra routes during the tourist season. They help run the dhabas that line the entire 14 km trek route from GauriKund to Kedarnath; they sell raincoats, umbrellas, canes, walking sticks, soft drinks, water bottles, home-made snacks and other supplies. On their backs, they carry children, the old, the infirm and tourists who are simply unfit and out of shape to walk the entire route. They run along the path with their ponies or horses carrying yatris.

Local residents tell of village after village in the Mandakini valley below Kedarnath resounding with wails from homes whose boys and men have not yet returned and are now feared dead. One village near Guptkashi alone counts 78 missing.

The tragedy of the families dependent on religious tourism for much of their annual income is compounded by the fact that the yatra season is over for the year, and is unlikely to resume even next year given the destruction of the roads and bridges in the upper reaches. Several thousand Char Dham valley families will now fall below the poverty line. Till the revival of the yatras, what will be the alternative sources of employment for the newly unemployed? Most likely we will see increased male outmigration from the region.

Last week’s disaster not only spelt doom for thousands of household economies but also dealt a grievous blow to Uttarakhand’s lucrative religious tourism industry. With the media focus almost exclusively on the fate of pilgrims, the scenes of the deluge and its aftermath will linger on in public memory, making the revival of tourism doubtful in the foreseeable future. The abject failure of the State government, political leaders and the administration is therefore likely to impoverish the State coffers too.

The scale of participation in the kaanwar festival that starts in July — when about a million people throng to the banks of the Ganga at Hardwar over a couple of weeks and take back Gangajal to their homes — will be revealing. The pressure on the State government will continue through September when the Nanda Devi Raj Jaat (yatra), a once-in-12-years event, is scheduled. A detailed discussion on the future of Uttarakhand’s tourism industry is not possible here but it is clear that it requires a radical overhaul. With the ineptness of the State government now fully exposed, new policies for the revival of tourism in Uttarakhand must follow an open debate.

Not a ‘freak’ incident

The impact of the floods on Uttarakhand’s tourism leads to larger questions of what kind of development Himalayan States should pursue. Before delving into that, it is important to understand the nature of the rainfall that deluged the State. Already several voices are arguing that the deluge is a random, ‘freak’ event. Odisha’s super cyclone in 1999, torrential rains in Mumbai in 2005, and now the Uttarakhand downpour constitute three clear weather related events in less than 15 years, each causing massive destruction or dislocation in India. These can hardly be called ‘freak’ events.

Several reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have repeatedly warned that extreme weather incidents will become more frequent with global warming. We are already riding the global warming curve. We will have to take into account the likelihood of more frequent extreme weather events when planning for development, especially in the fragile Himalayan region where crumbling mountains become murderous.

In the 1990s, when the demand for a separate State gained momentum, at conferences, meetings, workshops and seminars, Uttarakhandi people repeatedly described the special character of the region. Consciousness created by the pioneering Chipko Andolan raised the hopes of village women that their new State would pursue a green development path, where denuded slopes would be reforested, where fuel wood and fodder would be plentiful in their own village forests, where community ownership of these forests would provide their men with forest products-based employment near their villages instead of forcing them to migrate to the plains, where afforestation and watershed development would revive their dry springs and dying rain-fed rivers, and where the scourge of drunken, violent men would be overcome.

Year after year — in cities, towns and villages — they led demonstrations demanding a mountain state of their own. Theirs was a vision of development that would first enhance the human, social and natural capital of the State. Recalling the tremendous worldwide impact of the Chipko movement, Uttarakhandi women dreamed of setting yet another example for the world of what people-centric development could look like.

But in the 13 years after statehood, the leadership of the State has succumbed to the conventional model of development with its familiar and single-minded goal of creating monetary wealth. With utter disregard for the State’s mountain character and its delicate ecosystems, successive governments have blindly pushed roads, dams, tunnels, bridges and unsafe buildings even in the most fragile regions.

In the process, denuded mountains have remained deforested, roads designed to minimise expenditure rather than enhance safety have endangered human lives, tunnels blasted into mountainsides have further weakened the fragile slopes and dried up springs, ill-conceived hydropower projects have destroyed rivers and their ecosystems, and hotels and land developers have encroached on river banks.

Yes, wealth has been generated but the beneficiaries are very few — mainly in the towns and cities of the southern terai plains and valleys where production investments have concentrated. In the mountain villages, agricultural production has shrivelled, women still trudge the mountain slopes in search of fodder, fuel wood and water, and entire families wait longingly for an opportunity to escape to the plains.

Last week’s floods have sounded an alarm bell. To pursue development without concern for the fragile Himalayan environment is to invite disaster. Eco-sensitive development may mean a slower monetary growth rate but a more sustainable and equitable one.

(The writer is Director, People’s Science Institute, Dehra Dun and Member (Expert), National Ganga River Basin Authority)

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Being from Border Road had privileged to serve in part of this Utra
Khand. Then part of UP Hills, liked it most and know the area people
culture and ground realities. These so called cloud bursts have hit
Pilgrims as well the natives,not spared any one.Regret to write none
bothered about the heavy rainfall in the area by IMD 3 days in advance.
CAG's report about UKs hydroelectric power project was just ignored and
biting the dust. Now most of the state is suffering. Still open CAGs
report and now act for better future.

from:  P.S.Panwar
Posted on: Jun 27, 2013 at 16:35 IST

I agree much with what Mr. Chopra writes. For us who have origins in the
hills , this tragedy has many facets - and lingering fear of further
pain and sufferance. What I would hope for - is a blueprint for
development prepared by several independent parties to be submitted to
the Govt. to agree upon and yield to , when they go searching for votes
again.

from:  vinayak
Posted on: Jun 26, 2013 at 17:47 IST

It is certainly heartening that the alarming tragedy unfolded in the mountainous villages of the sacred place.Good to see that there are well-cordinated effort from the government and other agencies to mitigate the woes of the affected.
India is becoming a hotbed for natural calamities and it is hightime that we formulated some plans to go green in the country by reducing mounting pollutants.

from:  pallikunnil Divakaran
Posted on: Jun 26, 2013 at 17:20 IST

I am certainly of the opinion that in the face of such a calamity, the needs natives of Garhwal, who have been affected by these floods must be given as much attention as those of pilgrims.

from:  Astha Nautiyal
Posted on: Jun 26, 2013 at 16:10 IST

Nobody looking the agony of Kumaon Villages. The only focus is Garhwal
that too only the pilgrimage. What about the deep located villages that
have been completely swept. The pilgrimage have their homes to go. But
what about the natives they have nowhere to go.

from:  kapil
Posted on: Jun 26, 2013 at 11:31 IST

Nature has its own way of expressing its fury when we indiscriminately ravage the very thing that supports our existence on this planet. This, is something that is applicable universally.

from:  Astha Nautiyal
Posted on: Jun 26, 2013 at 11:09 IST

A good presentation in the article. The man made disasters and the partisan attitude of the national media is exposed. Protect the ecosystem and environment and to us......The attempt of the governments are not sincere in protecting the environment.

from:  G.V.N.Rao
Posted on: Jun 26, 2013 at 08:45 IST

It is very true that media has not given any heed to the damage caused by floods in rural areas. Media is being very selective in sharing the information not just about this issue but other's aswell.

from:  Shrieya
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 22:33 IST

I appreciate Ravi Chopra and The Hindu for bringing this article.
Sustainable development is chronically missing in the country. I hope
this tragedy serves as a trigger point to understand the importance of
sustainaibility.

from:  Chetan
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 22:19 IST

Tthe devastation of uttarakhand is due to unsustainable developements..
govt should focus more on safety measures rather than only developement

from:  umesh gupta
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 21:42 IST

The article has dealt with a very important but neglected aspect. The sensitivity shown towards the plight of local women and the dreams they had of their separate mountain state are rooted in very true ground-level realities.
Such is the plight of almost all himalayan states which continue to be exploited in the name of development.

from:  Manish Joshi
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 21:23 IST

Ravi Chopra's riveting analysis of important but much neglected endearing issues is a slap across the face of the powers that be even as it strikes a chord evoking feelings of pity as well as anger against an establishment that is ignorant regarding the character of the contours and conditions that shape the geography of the region, apathetic at the multi-dimentional plight of its citizens, impassive and sluggish when faced with disasters of such magnificent proportions.

from:  vyjayanthi
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 21:21 IST

After reading the article, its ironical to find that when all are talking about the exact
cause of the disaster being man-made and not natural due to ecological imbalance
as a result of widespread explosion of tourism in the area.
Obviously the locals were responsible for a vast illegal constructions like dhabas,
guest houses shanties etc. These people in a greed to encash the religious
sentiments of people are eqully responsible for the act. The locals have caused
commercialisation of the religion and added to the erosion of sanctity of the holy
shrines.
At the very first instance, they should not have been allowed to go there for earning.
And it has happened only in the last decade. Before that there ws not much
commercial activities at those places and at that time too, they were earning but
through other sources. I would say it was their greed only that led to such unchecked
development. They have bribed officials in opening up their shops etc. no point
blaming only politicians.

from:  Abhishek
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 20:10 IST

Those who are dependent on tourism in this place will be facing lot of hard ships. If they can be employed in rebuilding the place it will help them wade through the problem.

from:  Kiran
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 19:44 IST

Very well articulated.Yes,the local people were not there in any of
the discussions and media coverages.Their plight is also worth
addressing.

The so-called intelligentsia of our country don't seem to be
intelligent enough any more.We all are aware of the fury of the
nature;every now and then it makes us fall into line when we are
undisciplined.The uncontrolled exploitation of the natural resources
guided by the crony capitalism and the lust for wealth has made this
civilization mad in this race and the biggest irony is that we are not
taking any lesson from such disasters.We are not able to decode the
rage of the nature.

from:  mohit kumar
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 18:13 IST

Totally agree with the views of the writer but Uttrakhand state government have different dissent on the same issue. Few days back i read an article written by an environmentalist about his visit to the valley few days before the calamity happened. In that he wrote that he and his team noticed precedent catastrophe in the valley due to dams construction and mining. Environmentalists submitted their report to the state government and approached the apex court about it. But state government ignored the report and showed different dissent that it will halt the progress in the state. And now we are facing this devastation and will face aftermath troubles. I hope the new construction policy in the state would bother the environment rather than monetery wealth.

from:  Manpinder Singh Saini
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 18:00 IST

Completely agree with the author. The media attention appears to be
only towards the pilgrims. Many of the local people who have survived
the tragedy would have lost everything and would be required to start
their life from the scratch especially because in this country the funds
released for relief work hardly reaches those for whom it is meant.

from:  Janardhan
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 17:41 IST

Kudos to the author for writing this excellant article.
It is very much paining to know how poor and downdrodden in Chardham valley are suffering at the hands of greedy politicians in nexus with business class. It is an another example of Suffering India at the hands of Shining India.
Even at this jucnture of national tragedy, Rambo like politicians are trying to give shot term solutions only that too for publicity to get votes. Long term solutions for mitigating risks of great Himalaya and its people for real devopment is need of the hour. I hope this article will become an eye opener for people with power.

from:  S.Shivaji
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 17:16 IST

We had been to Badrinath two years back in July and were stalled on the road just outside the pilgrim town for 8 hours due to a landslide even when the road was being blocked for one way traffic. The denudation of the forests is there for everyone to see in the hills after Rishikesh. The local menfolk are totally dependant on the pilgrims for their livelihood and I sincerely hope the authorities determine loss of earning members in families of the area.

from:  S V Venkatesh
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 17:01 IST

The UPA and NDA stand for more of the same! Let the people decide wisely
this time!

from:  umesh bhagwat
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 16:18 IST

The authors voice is true.Also are the pathetic conditions of sadhus
and sannyasins who lived most part of their life praising Lord Shiva
wandering in the Himalayan uphills.The natures fury caused in
Uttarakhand reminds each one of us to discharge our duty in a balanced
way that donot harm the interests of the environmental and ecological
sustainability.
It once again threw a challenge for visionary intelligentsia to deeply
introspect where the Indian political set up went wrong to discharge
the rehabilitation measures once any such disaster occurs.Even during
the high campaign time for U.S. presidential elections neither
Democrats nor Republicans tried to brew political advantage out of
hurricane Sandy.

from:  HAVISH MADDURI
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 15:12 IST

Ravi Chopra's article makes me sit up and wonder whether our
politicians and their crony industrialist friends really give a hoot
about anything other than money. Today we are told by Rajesh Kumar,
chairman of the Central Water Commission that the dams in Uttarakhand
had reduced the flooding of towns and villages.

There was no mention of how at least two big companies have diverted
water from the Ganga into huge tunnels that have been bored into the
mountains.

India's upwardly mobile classes can stay happy with their new cars and
phones and what not. As old women say in the mining-destroyed villages
of Goa, they will only come to their senses when they open their taps
at home and get only dust coming out.

It is like the Cree people say: Only when the last tree has been cut,
only when the last river has been poisoned, only when the last fish
has been eaten; only then will they know that you cannot eat money!

from:  Hartman de Souza
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 13:34 IST

If Uttarakhand people know about the fragility of ecosystem, one really wonders how bureaucratic people who approved encroachment into riverside are not aware of. It simply shows how apathetic politicians and governments are towards country's safety.

from:  Sateesh Chandra
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 13:34 IST


Media's blindness towards rural areas is much common.Some action is
required to make media to report everything without indulging in
profit desires.

from:  Naveen Kumar
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 13:32 IST

I undertook the char dham yatra about 10 years ago. The hike from Gaurikhand up
to Kedernath is difficult. At this altitude, any cloud cover reduces temperature
considerably, as wind driven sleet and rain enhance the chill factor.
I had proper equipment, boots, weather proofs , sleeping bag, tent, stove
etc.
I saw elderly women wearing flip flops, thin saris which were
unsuitable for 4000 mts. On the Gangotri trek, officials were checking pilgrims for
plastic bags (forbidden) but no checks for Kedernath, allowing ill equipped elderly
into a dangerous zone.
How many of the dead would still be alive, if basic safety
rules had been applied. Common sense dictates that only those with proper
equipment should be allowed into the high Himalayas.

from:  John Baker
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 13:11 IST

It is not enough for those in power to merely wear white clothes and offer lip service,it is not enough to release funds which mostly get diverted to vested pockets,but,1.ensuring that every penny reaches the deserving source,every penny is made the best use, and,planning to prevent/mitigate future events. Undertaken with sincerity,honesty and integrity!

from:  N.M. Sudhir
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 12:37 IST

Thanks for writing these true words..
Really what about local people.How they survive... a big question and a
big point to focus...

from:  Chandan sharma
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 12:35 IST

When the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami struck our southern coastline,the
iconic shrine-Velankanni Church-was inundated,and devotees,pilgrims
and tourists alike were swept away without a trace. Houses,shops and
buildings in the area surrounding the shrine were razed. 2000 people
were reported to be inside the church at 930am, for morning mass-a
religious ceremony.The shrine was not damaged,though its outer
compound walls were.In the flash-floods at Kedarnath,the shrine was
largely unaffected,though houses and buildings around it were swept
away.Devotees,pilgrims and tourists alike were swept away too,without
a trace.The true scale and facts are just being pieced together in the
case of Kedarnath,but the similarity is tragically connected to
nature's fury,and man's impotence in its face;of the futility of
religiousity,as opposed to spirituality.

from:  Alex Thomas
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 12:13 IST

Very well written article.... thank u for pointing out d local residents plight

from:  Rahul
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 12:05 IST

For the politicians this is yet another golden opportunity to swindle
money by way of relief and rehabilitation. For the newspaperwalas some
news till next corruption scandal props up. Thus continues the great
Indian Story.....

from:  Subramoniam
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 12:01 IST

The locals need the rehabilitation package the most.

Apart from other suffering, the flood waters will surely have damaged their standing crops as well. All villages in these regions do subsistence farming and stock their produce ahead of winter. Now with everything gone, most of them will not even have food for the winter season and will be forced to buy food. They will not earn through the ruined pilgrimage season so they are really left in dire straits.

The donations and relief that are pouring in from all quarters, ought rightly to be channeled to the affected locals first. The pilgrims who are stuck need just to be evacuated and given medical care. They will go back to their normal lives wherever they came from.

The locals who live in the affected region require a substantial boost to sustain their lives and livelihood.

from:  G Mehra
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 12:00 IST

The VHP/RSS had already mentioned that the majority of people dead would be those who provided services for the pilgrims. The vast majority of mules and their attendees who ferry people to the temples are missing. The VHP had said that the toll would be in 1000s the day after the flood. The rest began waking up to the full impact of this tragedy only 2 days later.
But the VHP/RSS will always be ignored by mainstream english media!

from:  Deetee N
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 11:25 IST

The media is more interested in covering the anguish of those who
have been already rescued. As of today there
are still 8000 odd pilgrims stuck on various places. The rescue work
should concentrate on evacuating those vulnerable people stuck up in
remote locations and not those who are already rescued. The Hindu did a good
service in bringing out this article.

from:  Roopesh P Raj
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 11:07 IST

Thanks for The hindu for addressing the unaddressed people. It's sad to see the electronic media only worried about the tourists, politicians and celebrities .
Government should come forward and make the rehabilitation of these people who lost their source of income .

from:  Tanveer
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 11:06 IST

Thank you Ravi Chopra for pointing out the plight of the local
citizens, and those who migrate there to earn a living. As you said,
media is narrowly focusing on the loud and complaining pilgrims and
their rescue; and not on the poor populations whose dead will not even
be counted, nor the living rescued. Modi is focused on Gujaratis,
Tamil Nadu on Tamilians, Andhra on the Telugu population that needs to
be rescued. So much for National Integration! Who is focusing on the
locals and the tragedy that has befallen them? The living pilgrims
will return home; the dead will be mourned. But the tragedy continues
Ffor those who live in Uttarakhand - whose livelihoods are lost and
whose lives will never be the same again. The media will move on to
another sensational story. And the governments will do what they do
best - lay blame on others and be paralyzed into inaction. At least
the Armed Forces are working night and day on the rescue operations.

from:  lrao
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 10:10 IST

Where the vision goes unnoticed, no wonder disaster is a next door neighbour!! Pursuing the only aim of gaining wealth most of us have forgot the value of human life. Is money really worth all this?? Can it be placed above ones life?? Its a question that's still un answered.

from:  Rohini MK
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 09:53 IST

Well written! The situation is really grim for the villagers in Uttarakhand's mountains. Thanks to The Hindu for bringing this to everyone's notice. The Uttarakhand govt. has tremendous work to do, keeping the fragile ecology in mind.

from:  Pushkar Pund
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 09:48 IST

I agree with what the author says here..our political class is
uniformly described by a lack of vision and total greed... the few
developers /builders and big groups like Jaypee etc are the only ones
Making money out of all the buildings/ dams/ hydropower projects
coming up there..

I myself feel ashamed and helpless that all I can do right now is to
write this comment instead of doing something
about this..

from:  Nidhi
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 09:48 IST

I agree that Sustainable growth is what we need not only in mountain states but in whole country.

What about growth of 8% , if it benefits only 15 % of total population.

We should go with socialistic approach, where monetary growth may be slow but growth for all will be.

Media should highlight all relevant issues. I would like to thank The Hindu for doing its duty.

from:  Ashutosh Tripathi
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 08:33 IST

It is heartening that all the sections of media are busy reporting about the plight of pilgrims but giving no attention to the plight of local pepole who are also wort affected. For the sake of humanity they should also turn their attention towards the local victim

from:  Anil Kumar
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 07:53 IST

Excellent article giving coverage to events which electronic media has ignored.

Wonder why the Chief Secretary has not been sacked -- forget about politicians, the civil administration has been non functional.Now, every one is taking the credits for the job uniformed Forces did.

from:  Dr M.Chandrashekhar
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 06:20 IST

Very true.

from:  Mehdi Harkari Pashkum
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 02:34 IST

When government fails to act we should remember that democracy is a very powerful tool. If the national parties failed to act people should come up with their own parties and coalitions.

from:  Diya
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 02:14 IST

It really hurts when one witnesses the plight of the Devbhoomi. Corrupt political honchos, lust for tourism related profits and disregard for disaster management rules have claimed so many innocent lives.

from:  Prateek Joshi
Posted on: Jun 25, 2013 at 01:39 IST
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