Why Uttarakhand Still Needs Your Attention

From the treachery of all transportation to the destruction of the agricultural economy, from overcharging opportunists to the urgency of the coming winter, we still need to help Uttarakhand. The media might have moved on but there is still a calamity on our hands.

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Mail Today | Photo by Goonj
Mon 15 Jul, 2013 11:30 AM IST

Just yesterday, our regular chemist near our Delhi office casually wondered why my organisation Goonj is still working to provide relief in Uttarakhand. A colleague’s nephew had called him up to ask: What are they doing in Uttarakhand now?

They are not alone in imagining Uttarakhand is tidily repaired now – despite the roads still being inaccessible, despite the still-missing bodies, despite 25 kg of relief materials being only enough for a family for a week and the shattered economy of this region.

There is a sense of déjà vu in Uttarakhand. This had been the site of my first encounter with rural, disaster-struck India 20 years ago. It had been the place that first shook my urban sensibilities. In 1991, when a major earthquake hit Uttarkashi, I remember bunking my classes at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in Delhi and go running to the hills. I had no clue what a disaster was. I had only heard or read about earthquakes. Relief and rescue were alien jargon. ‘Corruption’ and ‘insensitivity’ were less alien, but still new. Certainly they were not part of the everyday discussions.

On that visit I didn’t fear the mountains. My childhood in Dehradun and Chakrata were still fresh in my mind. Land slides, road blocks, raptas, power cuts after a tree-fall were all common occurrences. I had never walked in such broken mountains before but I didn’t fear them then.

I remember going to many villages around Bhatwari, particularly a village called Jamak where 70 people had died. The reason: the Maneri Dam. Not the usual environment angle but because villagers had bought cement from officials and contractors at throwaway prices and made big houses without really knowing how to lay strong enough foundations. When the earthquake came, their homes and lives collapsed in minutes.

In 1991, for the first time I understood the pride of people who have been hit by disasters and the insensitivity of many of us in the cities. I saw how broken shoes and old undergarments were thrown at people in the name of relief and how the hill people rejected this, how they felt cheated and insulted. I saw how there was no dry wood to cremate the many, many bodies and how there were not enough able hands to even carry them.

Twenty two years later, I am in Uttarakhand again after another disaster, this time to set up a base that will handle long-term relief and rehabilitation work.

Did I say I had déjà vu when I went to Uttarakhand this time? I did, but this time Bhatwari is not accessible. A large number of villages are still cut off from the main roads. The relief materials can reach only through porters or by air, or you can reach only if you know how to trek miles of non-existent routes.

For the first time now, I’ve felt the fear of mountains. A bit surprising for someone for whom it had once been a playground. Like any other kid in the hills I used to walk a few kilometres to reach school when the army’s jeep didn’t turn up.

I felt afraid this time. Then I realised I am not the only one. A lot of locals, people who have grown up here, whose families have lived here for generations, are also in the same state. In the Guptakashi belt the deaths are higher while in the Uttarkashi belt the deaths are lesser but it is equally damaged. In Kedarnath, pilgrims and tourist casualties are the maximum but if you go to the Badrinath area, there are also huge damages.

We Indians are known for our resilience. In the cities we survive everything from choked drains, dirty roads, insecure electric wires, monsoon floods to dengue. We are resilient but do very little except crib in the name of resilience. The people of the hills have very tough living conditions, but additionally, they have now been the victims of negligence, the greed of corporations and contractors.

Nevertheless, for the people of the hills, too, life will move on.

However, there are still some questions raised by the people here that remain unanswered.

When Guptakashi Uttarkashi, Joshimath and Pithoragarh are so far away in different directions, how were they all hit by the same fury of nature? When, according to the locals, the Kedarnath temple area on any given day can hold over 15,000 people and the area was full, why did the government keep saying there were only 1,000 deaths? And what about the thousands of people for whom there is no record, from the hundreds of monks to petty shop owners?

This time the media played a critical role, a largely positive one, to ensure that the disaster got the world’s attention. There were also some instances when, in the race to be the first and to make sure that people saw the gravity of the situation, even normal rain was projected as everything from ‘dhuandhar barish’ to landslides. This demotivated hundreds of potential volunteers from coming to the area and also created problems for many who were still hopeful of the survival of their dear ones.

Passing the Parcel

We are neither the army nor the government. We are just a group of passionate citizens and, like millions of other citizens, have our own limited skills and capacities. We are certainly overwhelmed with the response and trust of people from across the world.

I am not sure if I should blame the Uttarakhand government only for not coordinating the relief work. In our 14 years of dealing with disasters, we’ve seen the same story everywhere. In times of peace we have plenty of conferences and seminars on disaster mitigation strategies, but when the disaster happens we are hardly prepared for anything.

In 2001, when an earthquake shook Gujarat, the government spent crores to buy tin sheets as roofs for temporary shelters. Tin roofs in the heat of Gujarat? And that too in Kutch?

The Army and the Indian Air Force have played a major role in Uttarakhand. But we’ve found that most government officials have just been busy organising VIP visits. What we needed was a disaster control room, a central office keeping track of the situation, the weather, road conditions and, of course, offering transport support.

There need to be much more number of machines to clear the roads. The delivery of relief materials will be much faster that way. Right now even if the relief materials are ready for distribution, the relief process is halted due to inaccessibility. There is a gap in the coordination of central agencies. Updated and right information is not available. The first thing that needs to be done is to update the data.

Only Connect

The Uttarakhand floods have been very different from any of the other disasters I have observed before. For one, nature has been a lot more unpredictable this time, forcing everyone to hold their breath and be a bit more patient in responding.

All plans have to be made for the long term. We need to understand that we might feel great by donating 25 kg of ration to a family and claim that the relief has reached them, but the fact remains that it is hardly enough for a few days of survival.

Often, the recovery work starts right away after the disaster, but here we have seen many more areas being cut off after the disaster due to fresh landslides. At any point we have to deal with an area that was connected a few days ago but is now cut off. It is the middle of the monsoons now and landslides are frequent.

There are roads that look normal with black tar on top, but look again. They have no bottom as the base has been washed away. Now every small rain or fresh landslide only means further damage. In many areas we can’t even see the old mule tracks anymore. (Not that there that many mules any more but more about that later.)

Immediately after disaster struck, within hours the whole country knew that the area was not accessible even by small vehicles. So why did a large number of organisations, associations, individuals and political parties think that their big trucks would go in? Just two weeks after the disaster, we heard that around 200 trucks were parked on the highways all across the state and relief materials were just sitting and rotting.

This, unfortunately, is the result of relief being done in an unplanned manner, out of a surfeit of emotion (if one attributes sincerity of purpose) or for cheap publicity (if one doesn’t).
I remember talking to a stranded truck driver who was worried because he had been on the road for six days without extra payment. He knew that such a big disaster had made it boom time for many in the transport business.

The need of the hour is good transportation. Army helicopters are still dropping materials to some places. Anything else available right now is much higher than the normal rate. That is why Goonj did not wait and made our own way by engaging people from the rafting community since they are adventurous people and know the area well. Many of them come from the same villages and have a big emotional connection to the relief work. The other people we have worked with are the trekkers and mountaineers – their efforts also take a practical shape by using them as porters to carry relief materials. So far, Goonj has sent over 30 truckloads of materials into the deep areas. In some parts the porters charge Rs 600 to Rs 1,000 for carrying 25 kg, which is much more than the cost of the materials themselves. But right now these men are the only ones who can carry on in these angry mountains. They trek for six to eight hours, deliver the materials and come back.

Winter is Coming

We are just scratching the surface of the economic disaster the floods have been.

One, in these areas people largely grow potatoes and, in some areas, apples. The floods damaged the ready crops and destroyed the fertile land. What was once a farm is now sand and silt. Often, people here have smaller pieces of land that are good enough to grow for mostly their own consumption.

Two, locals estimate that 5,000 mules have died in the Kedarnath area alone. This was the peak tourist season and people from all across had come with their mules to earn more. In these areas, the mules used to be the biggest source of employment and transportation. A mule is a big asset for a family and costs anywhere between Rs 60,000 to Rs 1 lakh. Also, mules like to walk in pairs on the tracks so people who owned a pair are likely to have lost both.

With less mules available, even if a farmer wants to hire one for bringing down his potato to the local market, the hiring cost of a mule is much higher than the cost of potato. What do you do then? Many people who had bought their mules with loans (from the unorganised sector) are now stuck with a mountain of interest as well.

Three, the main economy of this area has been faith and temple-based. We’ve witnessed a series of political gimmicks and I am sure the temples will open soon. But more important for the economy are the restoration of the routes and the safe passage of pilgrims and tourists.

For hundreds of people who live on earnings from small hotels and even smaller shops all along the routes, this season is gone and one can’t predict a flourishing season next year. Who can even look ahead that far? In many regions, just the next few months are going to be tough. Ordinarily it is in this peak season when people earn their money and store grains and provisions for the harsh winter. So if you are an outsider and you wonder why locals are putting away relief materials instead of using them now, you have your answer. They know that our short-term memory will not keep them warm in the winter.

Why We Are Still There

Goonj began by taking over a huge community hall in Rishikesh, after speaking to the local nagar palika, where we can store around 30 trucks. We moved materials from big trucks into smaller vehicles from there.

We organized the entire relief programme systematically by calling on our team members and volunteers. This is how we usually operate, from the Bihar floods to the Aila cyclone in West Bengal to the Odisha floods. We have a rich experience of new and successful experiments in the Kosi area, where we reached over 300 villages after the floods.

As usual, running a relief operation means encountering both the gold and the dregs of humanity. For every truck that came in with well-planned, well-packaged food grains as per the lists we publicised, there were great piles of cooked and leftover food. People sent us new blankets but they burdened our days and limited resources with dirty, unwashed, over-sized clothes and undergarments. Fourteen years of encountering this has not made me blasé to this. I still wonder about the senders of these ‘gifts’. Do they not think for a second about how they would feel if they had lost their homes and received dirty undergarments as relief?

Many people look at disasters as an opportunity to increase rates and bring down quality. Among the goods sent to us, we found huge quantities of biscuits that had expired years ago, tarpaulins and blankets of the worst possible quality and half-consumed food items and medicines.

In Uttarakhand, as elsewhere, we met locals who opened their stores and kitchens for others, even visitors, and then faced a shortage themselves. On the other hand, we also had to deal with people wanting to take us to consumer court if they didn’t get a receipt for Rs 1,100 immediately. Someone who used the worst possible language because they didn’t get a receipt of Rs 500 pronto. With a series of such phone calls and mails, a large part of our team had to unfortunately shift their focus from providing relief to providing receipts. We never thought we’d have to process 20,000 financial transactions through all possible modes in those first few days after the disaster. No one, certainly not us, is prepared for that.

I saw a desperate number of people looking for their relatives. A large number of people are coming back again and again despite problems to look for missing relatives.

We are committed to the relief and rehabilitation process in the region for at least the next two years. We have created a big base in Rishikesh and also base camps in Guptakashi and Gangotri in Uttarkashi. We have also operated from Helang for the hugely neglected area of Joshimath. Apart from general relief, our focus is health, schools and livelihood.

No, it isn’t déjà vu after all. Being in Uttarakhand after the floods has been like no other experience. This is one disaster in which I have seen the largest number of people risking their lives to do something and reaching out to the toughest terrains as volunteers, while a huge number of people came up with money and material. Most of all, I will never forget the money orders from remote villages in India where people who I suspect earn barely anything sent Rs 20.

The news cycle might have moved on from Uttarakhand. But we need to be patient and continue to stand with the people of this abode of Gods.

Anshu Gupta is the founder director of the NGO Goonj. You can follow Goonj’s Uttarakhand relief efforts here and contribute to them here

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