A village in Uttarakhand near the India-China border has to be rehabilitated and that process is being driven by emotions, devotion, and logistics in equal measure.
The road to India's border with China in Uttarakhand passes through its villages. Keeping village life safe, secure, and thriving has its own challenges in the border districts of the hill state.
In one such district, Chamoli, the village of Raini is witnessing the initiation of an administration-backed rehabilitation process after the devastating 7 February flash floods that raged in the Rishi Ganga.
The inevitable movement of people in the process, however, seems to involve emotions that in the long run could keep the people of Raini rooted within the village or in the region itself.
The Niti Valley of Uttarakhand's Chamoli district is a place where fear and belief often clash. Tragedies resulting from natural disasters have left the people shaken. But, through all this, their Devi is at the centre, keeping the people rooted to the villages, even as the idea of 'uprooting' from the village in order to stay safe keeps returning amid interruptions of fear and the fury of nature.
The belief in the Devi gives the people living in Raini, as in other villages in the border district, the strength to rebuild lives and local temples. The belief in the Devi ignites belief in the idea of home. The idea of home makes the people living in these villages brave adversity and keeps the spirit for rebuilding alive.
The rains last month (June) brought reminders and flashes of the disaster that unfolded on 7 February, and which can or could return. The villagers receive this ‘forecast’ through local instincts, the reading of nature, and the people’s belief in the 'words' of the Devi herself.
The importance of local communities to the border districts and the inherent village strengths of Uttarakhand is well known in the state. This is the reason why outmigration, inextricably linked with rehabilitation, has been one of the prime issues occupying local electoral narratives and those of the state and Centre.
The district administration and the state government have begun the rehabilitation process for the people of Raini even as a local school served as a shelter for villagers impacted by the threats of landslides last month.
As part of the rehabilitation, the depiction of the Devi — Ma Bhagwati — is being given a new abode. Her current home is the Raini Bhagwati Ma Kali Mandir, as her abode is known in the region to her devotees. The temple got damaged in the flash floods of 7 February this year.
The new temple to the Devi is being made at the confluence of the Dhauli Ganga and the Rishi Ganga.
Puran Singh Rana lives in Raini and is a devotee of the Devi. He told Swarajya over the phone that the locals believe that a disaster similar to the one that unfolded on 7 February may revisit the village. When? That's not known. Their belief in the Devi keeps them intuitive. Sometimes, they feel, she gives them indications of the dangers building or arriving.
The recent rains saw the Rishi Ganga river raging again. He says, "bahut paani thhaa, bhooskhalan karke le gaya." (There was lot of water. It brought landslides in it wake).
Rana, along with others, visits the site where arrangements are being made to build the new temple. Meetings are held to discuss preparations.
This process is coinciding with the rebuilding of their own lives. He cares to mention that the Devi's abode has to be a small one. The deity knows the region. The deity knows the devotee's respect for nature and belief in her, they say.
Rana said that most probably, people of Raini will not leave homes, to go to another village, and if at all they do, they will, maximum for 10-15 days. "People of Raini didn't stay back in Joshimath even a decade back when the need to be at safer sites arose. They returned to Raini. Only those who had to study stayed back in Joshimath."
He told this author that villagers have been given the option of shifting to two villages. "Tehra parivar visthapan kar rahe hain aur tehra chhoot rahe hain upar waale, " Rana added.
He adds that the families are expected to be shifted in phases and many are not too happy about shifting to the other villages in the region because the land they will be provided by the government will be lesser than what they currently have ('200 metres' approximately per 'naali' and 25-30 naali or more is with each family) in their own village Raini, or expect.
Meanwhile, the villagers want the rehabilitation process to be expedited. Monsoon is approaching. The villagers in Raini hold a belief that the Devi has "indicated" or "said" that a disaster similar to the one that struck Raini and the region on 7 February may strike again — may be after five years. Some villagers believe that disruptions from nature will continue to strike the area, may be during the next three years.
It so happened that last year another small temple was removed from its original site amid opposition from villagers.
Some villagers reportedly blamed the removal of the temple for the February tragedy. They say it has attracted the wrath of the Devi (a reminder of the belief surrounding Ma Dhaari Devi that emerged during the 2013 Uttarakhand floods in Garhwal).
Rana added that the villagers will not like to shift permanently. "Poorn visthapan to nahin kar paayenge... Kabhi khatra hoga to wahan jaa sakte hain (temporary visthapan)."
Then, the cattle and other domestic animals, that count as dear as family members are a concern for the villagers. Shifting to another village means emotion for the cattle and domestic animals are at stake.
Rana adds that the administration helped the villagers by providing them shelter and meals at the local junior college and school.
On the evening of 30 June, District Magistrate of Chamoli, Swati Bhadauria, received a report which would be studied and would go on to shape the rehabilitation process of the people of Raini. A team of geologists had conducted the survey of the village towards the end of June.
Bhadauria told Swarajya over the phone that three areas have been identified for the rehabilitation of the villages. One in Raini — the existing private lands of the villagers themselves, one in Dhaak village and the third in Subhai.
She says, "Ek Raini mein unki khud ki bhoomi thee, second is in Dhaak, which is a government land and the third is in Subhai, which is land of horticulture department. Whichever is found to be geologically stable land, wahan par hum loag kar lenge (we shall process the rehabilitation there)."
According to her, a priority order will be followed, under it, "the existing private land of the residents will be studied, if found safe, the residents will be rehabilitated there. The second option will be the land in Dhaak (state government), in case these two are found unstable, then the land in Subhai will be considered for settlement. A detailed survey will be conducted."
The reports will be studied, and on the basis of reports, a karya yojana will be made, Bhadauria added.
She added that the "karya yojana" has various aspects related to the land available, the land to be given, the marking on the map, the marking of khasras among others. She said that funds for house construction, the shifting allowance, for gaushalas will be looked into. "The geological report of the existing land, and the land that the residents of Raini village are supposed to be shifted to, will be studied," she added.
The suspension bridge over the Rishi Ganga river in Raini is where the villagers are building the Devi a new abode with the help of other villages in the region. But this is not the only emotional interaction taking place between people and the guiding force of 'shakti' in different forms.
There is another interaction with the Devi taking place. This local deity is Gaura Devi — one of the pioneers of the Chipko Aandolan, who arose from Raini to become the force of the movement along with the leader —Sunderlal Bahuguna.
Ma Bhagwati and Gaura Devi together bind this village in belief and faith. When, as a precautionary move, Gaura Devi's depiction was removed from its memorial spot, it became an emotional moment for the village. Women, especially the elderly, broke down.
The depiction of Gaura Devi, too, will find a new, safer spot with the help of the Chamoli district administration.
Rains bring challenges. Bhadauria added that the administration is in touch with the BRO. She pointed out that steps are being taken to keep a check on the damage and to ensure safety. "The work for the retaining wall has started," she added.
She pointed that sthhai visthapan will require the house construction, building of gaushalas, and shifting. The priority before the district administration is to save lives.
Thus, asthaai visthapan seems to be the key — both before the villagers, as pointed by Rana, and before the authorities who are working in cooperation with the nearby villages. Promises will be fulfilled with full determination, adds Bhadauria.