How to Sort a Calamity

What does it mean to do relief work in a still-spinning, still-besieged Uttarakhand? Our writer goes to the heart of a major relief operation and discovers its nitty gritties, weirdness and heartbreak

Photo Courtesy: Goonj
At a yet-to-be inaugurated municipality community centre in Rishikesh, Anshu Gupta is sort of stuck. His NGO, Goonj, has made this the hub of its flood relief activities in Uttarakhand. He desperately wants to go up to Guptkashi or Uttarkashi and beyond, but the roads are blocked. Besides, there are too many issues pending.

Some of them lie in soft copy in a special folder Goonj has just created. The folder is called "Nuisance", and it contains emails from those who have contributed to Goonj and are sending in daily demands for receipts and tax exemption certificates. The contributions range from Rs 51 to several thousands. A maximum of 30 percent off on income tax under 80G exemption applies; returns, as we all know, are due only next year. One lady has has sent three reminders in three days: where is the receipt for her Rs 2,000 contribution? Her last mail contains an (underlined) threat: She will spread "bad word in social media", unless...

And then, wonders the 42-year-old Gupta, what do they do with all the poori bhaji? Yes, this, too, has been received, as part of the relief materials sent in by well-intentioned people across the country. Poori bhaji, unfortunately, doesn't travel that well from, say, Jahangirpuri to Joshimath. "People invest so much of their time and emotions into making this kind of thing ... [but] they just don't put in thought," says Gupta. His concern is a serious one: a rotting package of food or a can of oil carelessly left open when sent spoils the usable material around it. The fetid poori bhaji (and potato patties and bun pao) go  to the trash can, but not before inflicting some collateral damage.

Gupta and his trusted lieutenant Sheoji sit on what will some day in the future serve as a stage, their laptops open on makeshift tables. These are constructed by stacking cartons of water. Old doors are laid across to make a perfectly acceptably workspace –– once it's covered with a sheet that isn't fit to be sent out as relief. Their cellphones keep ringing.

Their view from this perch is not of an audience. Staring back are ceiling-high piles of relief materials that urban India has dispatched: sacks, boxes, sheets, blankets. The piles are organised under large handwritten labels on the walls saying 'sugar', 'rice' and so on. The stacks are not particularly neat, but who cares?

"This mountain in front of you," says Gupta, "is a mountain of biscuits. So is the one across. And this one is a mountain of water." There are too many biscuits and too much water in the hall. In the phase relief work is at right now –– more than three weeks after the devastation in mid-June –– biscuits and water are not really top priority anymore. They are emergency foods. Once things settle, people like to go back to their staples.

The biscuits and water will get used, says Gupta, in a future phase of distribution. And some of the water has been put to use already – to tackle the monkey menace.

The upper floor of the community centre is only half constructed, and therefore half open. Monkeys around the Kailash Gate area of Rishikesh were quick to realise that there was a whole building full of food waiting to be raided. (They are particularly fond of Frooti, says Gupta, and occasionally drink tea).  The only way to prevent them is to build walls and block gaping doorways. This the smart people at Goonj have done efficiently by piling cartons of water in a manner that would have pleased the Chinese who tried warding off the Mongols.
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Mail Today | Photo by Goonj
Mon 15 Jul, 2013 11:30 AM IST

Gupta had brought me upstairs past several signs saying "No dramatic photographs". This is a menace too: an opportunistic, if small, band of 'relief tourists'/politicians has also descended upon Uttarakhand, and a picture of them carrying a sack of rice works as proof of social service and bolsters crisis management credentials. Gupta was taking me up to show me some of the strange materials they've received – including dirty undergarments – and we passed a stack of buckets that had come in. They needed to be returned promptly to the vile toilet they had no doubt spent several years in. But this wasn't priority.

"There are absolutely fantastic people in the world," he said with the resignation, "and absolute f******.”

Back on the stage, Sheoji sat at his table and updated Excel sheets. As Gupta held a 200 ml bottle of water and shook his head ("What use is this quantity? Even the bottle is too small for reuse –– it is destined for the river..."), a couple of "absolutely fantastic people" called.

The first was Rajat who was camped at Guptkashi, about 8 hours from Rishikesh and on the road to Kedarnath. He is a Goonj volunteer: he lives and works in Gurgaon and had been cut off for the last few days. The material sent to his Goonj camp office had all been taken care of, and he was now helping other organisations sort their stuff. Gupta put him on speaker phone: "It's raining very heavily here," said Rajat, "and there are several boulders blocking the road ... It might take days."

Gupta asked him to stay put, not take any risks, and enquired about another volunteer, Shatrughan Jha. Jha was an old Gandhian from Champaran district who had worked in the railways, retiring as station master of Narkatiaganj. Like many other volunteers in Uttarakhand right now, Jha had worked tirelessly during the Bihar floods of 2008. From all accounts, he was a man of unmanageable enthusiasm. Gupta told Rajat: "Take care of Jha saab, let him not wander off somewhere risky ... I think that's where you'll have to devote your energy over the next few days."

Rajat is in his mid-twenties, at the beginning of his career. He had taken leave and was supposed to return to work. Gupta told him that he would call his manager, which he did. She sounded bubbly and seemed proud that one of hers was doing this kind of work: his leave would be extended. However, the call ended without it being clarified whether it would be paid or unpaid leave.

A truck driver who had just delivered supplies to Uttarkashi walked in. He had spent the night stuck in a roadblock about 40 km from Rishikesh. He wasn't sure if it was okay to try and travel up there now –– no one could be sure. A trickle of loose rocks threatens you with the possibility of something much bigger every few kilometres on the journey up the hills, no matter which direction you take.

His truck had been the last of 12 sent out till last Monday the 8th of July. (Goonj has been able to despatch 20 smaller vehicles as well.) A truck carries enough material to serve 150 to 200 people for anything between a week to 10 days. Goonj has what it calls a "family pack": about 30 kgs of rations, including 10-12 kgs each of rice and flour, a couple of kgs of dal, salt, sugar and tea leaves and a kg or two of oil. Blankets, tarpaulins and tents are for one-time distribution.

Sifting through the relief materials pouring in is one part of the task; despatch is the other. Besides the conventional lorries and smaller vehicles, Goonj presses into service whatever is available. For instance the rafting association, which Goonj sought help from, took four pick-up loads of materials to Chandrapuri, Palli and Syalsor in Rudraprayag. Fifty family packs, 80 blankets, 46 tarpaulin sheets, various types of shoes, a couple of cartons of plastic utensils, three bags of woollens. Goonj depends primarily on volunteers, but now has 150 full-time employees.

If you add those numbers up, the effort seems tiny considering the scale of the tragedy. But we tend to forget something obvious: India's focus in the initial days was on the pilgrims; the choppers and Innovas plied for them. These people were, in general, near roads. The locals, however, live in places that are out of reach. Even the dirt tracks that led to the villages have been washed away. Also, they typically live in hillside hamlets that could have as few as 30 families; a 200 family village is considered large. You have to reach them one family at a time.

Initially, the workers at Goonj thought they would deliver relief to the doorsteps of the affected. This was a sentimental and unfeasible idea. It turned out to be far more rational to have sites where the locals could come and collect materials. This is the model now being followed. So even as Goonj despatches a team of mountaineers to places regular people can't reach, the brief to them is not to carry materials,  but to identify the best place from where distribution can take place for areas no one has reached so far.

While the urgency remains, the emergency of the initial week has receded. This is when you discover what is crucial in volunteer relief work. There's one word for it: sorting. From emails to clothes to volunteers themselves. And, as I was soon to discover, even 'victims'.


*****

I left for Uttarkashi soon after meeting Gupta on the 8th. I think he felt a little frustrated that he still had thousands of receipts to generate. "I'll see you there tomorrow, most definitely," he said. Fact is, none of us knew exactly when the other would reach.

My driver, Deepak, was a veteran of these parts and he had an axiom about driving here: "You need good horn, good brake and good luck."

Deepak had another dimension to him. He was a keen amateur ornithologist, having traveled with experienced bird-watchers over several years. As we snaked up the now precarious 108 to Uttarkashi, he pointed out Oriental Spotted Doves, Rufus Tree Pies and the small but spectacular (for its arse) Red-Vented Bulbul. Also, he was on the constant lookout for a drongo. (I was thinking: “Saala, tu bird dekh raha hai ya road?”)

Landslides threatened everywhere, but we had all three of the requisites Deepak had listed. So although it often appeared that some angry God had bitten off chunks of the hillside, taking half the road with it, and although we knew that the Bhagirathi was furiously slicing away at the soil beneath, nothing overly dramatic happened.

Kailash Ashram is one of the oldest ashrams in Uttarakhand, dating back to the 19th century. It is here that I met Krishna Ramavat, a young man who works full time for Goonj and lives in Mira Road, Mumbai. It was partly his job to ensure that relief went to the neediest.

I watched as this was done one morning. Those in the queue outside the ashram office were, almost without exception, women. Some carried children with them. Where were all the men?

A verification process was part of the drill. Where was the victim from? Did her family live on rent? On what floor? Had she brought any proof? At the end of this process, and borrowing from the election commission’s playbook, people who were approved had a nail stained with a marker. They could now collect rations across the courtyard. Those who didn't get the mark had to go home –– or to the next place distributing goods, to try again.

Some of the questions to the suspected opportunists were cringe-inducingly direct: "You are wearing so much gold ... Why have you come to collect rations meant for the needy?" On occasion, the presiding swamiji would identify someone as having collected before. "But I swear I haven't!" said a stooped lady in her 70s. She even had a suggestion: why didn't they take pictures of the victims? This seemed very sensible, but a volunteer pointed out that a family of six, say, would start rotating their members to collect three or four times what they required.

Sorting: that's the critical stage before distribution; and it isn't a pleasant job.

*****

In the evening, I received a call from Gupta. "You won't believe the latest problem," he said, laughing. "We were trying to send all these receipts, when Gmail informed us that we were blocked because we had crossed the 500 mail limit per day." He was still laughing when he said he'd mailed the company to get around the problem since he knew someone senior there.

There was a question that I'd left pending, so I asked it now: How much money had Goonj collected in donations?

Around Rs 4 crore (Rs 40 million), said Gupta. (For perspective, the municipal work on a 200-odd meter tunnel in Uttarkashi, the town's showpiece, though barely lit, cost upwards of Rs 500 crore). The Goonj donations had a lot do with the television appeals that various channels were running. And even though there are hundreds of organisations working in the area, many major networks had chosen Goonj.

Gupta is quick to point out that "Goonj didn't approach anybody". And he, personally, had no idea about the celebrity of some of those making the appeals on TV. He had merely approved the message. "Last week, we received a call from Gujarat,” he told me. “A lady was very impressed with all the work we were doing and wanted to speak with 'Ichcha'." Gupta's wife, and Goonj fellow traveler Meenakshi, told him that Ichcha is a character on the soap Uttaran.

*****

There has been visible damage in Uttarkashi and there are many genuine sufferers. But there are also many who are not. And, ironically, there are some who've been affected but aren't seeking help.

To reach the people who have actually been cut off in this region, you need to trek a day to Maneri and beyond. A wandering sadhu from Kerela, Swami Rama Chaitanya, started walking just after the floods hit. He went to five villages that were cut off, and he says he even offered the men money to come and collect relief materials. "They refuse to come down," says Rama Chaitanya.

They are surviving, he adds, on their reserves of potatoes and the fiddlehead ferns they forage near streams. The southern swami is youthful and rational. He says that there's a paucity of able-bodied (and willing) men in several places so they are eating into their reserves, surviving on wild vegetables. It's just the way it is.

His ashram is near the confluence of the Bhagirathi and the Asiganga. It was saved, he says, because boulders fortuitously fell, changing the course of the rampant river towards the opposite bank. "The water just stopped suddenly at around two in the morning. Three ashrams were saved ... We were really happy. And one sadhu claimed it had happened since he had chanted a mantra." At this point, Swami Rama Chaitanya laughed out loud.

Further down the river is a place called Bhim Gupha, where Swami Adhyatyanand watched the swell rise more than 10 feet. A former civil engineer from Jadavpur University, he had traveled the world working in the oil industry till he chose this path a few years ago.

I heard his Hindi and asked him if he was a Bengali. He replied, "I'm not a Bengali ... my body is."

Oops!

The next day, he took me to his now abandoned shack at Bhim Gupha. Legend has it that the 'house of lac' where the Pandavas were about to be burned alive was somewhere in the vicinity. Bhima escorted them to the safety of this cave –– although how all of them, Bhima included, managed to fit I do not know.

The cave is behind a small padlocked door, and the engineer swami's damaged shack is just across it. He had risked staying there on the night of the flood. "It was just awesome," he said. How appropriately he'd used that word, I thought.

*****

In the Himalayas, the scale of everything is "awesome". Why should this tragedy be any different? Governments, the media –– indeed, anyone from 'outside' has struggled to cope with this. There are rumours of 50,000 dead; official reports say less than 3,000; in between are the missing.

Perhaps the big picture can only be seen from the sky. To get a sense of this, I spoke to Wing Commander Parandikar, a chopper pilot who was flying sorties for both rescue and relief. The first thing he told me was that the weather prevented them from seeing much at all. Parandikar flies a Mi-17, one of the 45 deployed, but he said visibility was at 800 metres –– about a third of what you need for safe flying through narrow valleys. This means a pilot has less than half a minute to get out of the way of the mountain right in front or miss the almost invisible power line slung across his path. Parandikar and his colleagues have been pushing the "manouevre envelope" (or capability) of their choppers from the first day. They have rescued about 20,000 people between Harsil in the west and Pithoragarh in the east. Each relief sortie carries a ton and a half of supplies.

And yet, there are things beyond their control. As Parandikar was speaking to me, he received a situation report call from Air Headquarters. He was at Pithoragarh, he said, but the weather was too poor to risk flying. There were five people still to be rescued.

The forces had a system of prioritising who they would rescue first. Pilgrims with medical problems topped the list; the length of time someone had been in the hills was a factor. Based on this, in order to avoid the inevitable scramble at helipads, people were assigned tokens.

This was an orderly enough way to do things. And yet, there is the story of Pragna Thakar.

Mrs Thakar, from Gujarat, had gone to Kedarnath and went missing for the first few days along with her sister Veena. Her son corporal Hardik Thakar chanced upon a photograph on a military website from one Lt General Anil Chait's visit to Harsil on 21 July. There, in the background, the young soldier spotted his mother. She was safe. Now, all he had to do was find her.

Corporal Thakar used every possible means to try and reach his mother. The forces allowed him to hitch rides on helicopters to get from one place to another. But the last record of her was in Harsil, under the misspelt name Pragya Thakkar. The soldier had no doubt that this was just a clerical error. It had to be his mother. But thereafter, the trail had gone cold. Was she taken on board a chopper? Where was she dropped?

He checked with police downstream in Bhatwari. "They had a list of 4,000 names of people who had arrived,” says Thakar. “They told me in two minutes that my mother's name wasn't on it. It was incredible." Now, he adds, he's heard that the state government plans to declare all those missing after 15 July dead. "How can they do that? How do they know? My mother was safe, I saw her picture!"

Thakar will file a long overdue RTI application very soon. He continues his search.

*****

It was really sunny the day I left Uttarkashi. The treacherous pieces of road had maintained a sort of status quo. Fresh vegetables had arrived in the market. The mules were hard at work –– mainly carrying relief supplies at about Rs 1,000 for every 100 kgs carried 10 km. Overhead, the choppers flew.

Deepak was chirpy even as he lamented the fact that the Himalayan Monal, a colourful pheasant that Uttarakhand prides itself for, could now only be found in places as high up as Chopta.

"Chopta?" I'd been trekking there decades ago; it is the base for the Tunganath shrine. I had learned it was safe from the floods. But poorly planned construction, the chancy blasting of hillsides to build roads (whose primary purpose was to carry heavy machinery up to build dams rather than improve connectivity), all of this had taken a toll on the bird's habitat. The poor thing doesn't fly too well either (think peacock), said Deepak.

Suddenly, Deepak became very excited. He had seen a magnificent bird: an Egyptian Vulture. It glided along, showing off the white of its undercarriage, sharing the air with a light helicopter.

One bird was looking for something that was dead. The other, for someone who might have survived.

If you would like to make a donation to Goonj go to the website or Facebook page.
In this picture taken June 25, 2013, vehicles wait on the either side following a landslide due to heavy rains between Rudraprayag and Srinagar. Around 1,000 people have been killed in flash floods ... more 
In this picture taken June 25, 2013, vehicles wait on the either side following a landslide due to heavy rains between Rudraprayag and Srinagar. Around 1,000 people have been killed in flash floods and landslides in northern India, as a top official warned June 24 that rebuilding of the devastated Himalayan region would take years. AFP PHOTO/MANAN VATSYAYANA less 
1 / 21
Getty Images | Photo by STR / AFP
Fri 28 Jun, 2013 9:30 AM IST

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