Uttarakhand Floods: Two years on

Neelu Vyas

It was on June 16, two years ago that nature’s fury unleashed on Uttarakhand. Ice cold water gushed down the mountains, washing away thousands of people, roads, bridges, villages and everything else that came in the way. 5,000 people died in the floods after a cloudburst and about 10,000 people who went missing, are presumed dead.

2 years after the tragedy, the centuries old shrine of Kedarnath appears to have come back to life. With devotees queuing up, the temple economy too seems to be limping back to normal. The priests, flower vendors, pony owners, taxi services, small hotel owners are all slowly back in business.

One simple yet poignant change has come into effect. A log book is now maintained to jot down the names of all the pilgrims who visit the temple. That’s one lesson learnt after thousands of pilgrims went missing.

But all is not well. The livelihood of number of people were brutally cut off when the floodwaters hit. The magnitude of the disaster was such that even two years later, people haven’t been able to come to terms with the losses.

“I lost my source of income because there was a sharp fall in tourists after the disaster” explains Akhilesh Singh, who brings devotees from Gauri Kund to Kedarnath on his pony.

Sanjay Ricolia of Searsi village, owner of small restaurants, was forced to withdraw his children from a private school because he could not afford it.

“My children were studying in private schools but now they go to a nearby government school. Our income has drastically come down because of a drop in the number of tourists in the region,” Ricolia said.

Rammed down buildings, broken sheds, weathered houses and hotels that bear the mark of the devastation, are still a common sight. The Char Dham yatra which includes a pilgrimage to Gangotri, Yamunotri Kedarnath and Badrinath was badly hit because of damaged roads. Taxi operators are still afraid to drive upto Gauri Kund.

“The number of visitors has come down and I am unable to pay my debts. I am surviving on some meagre cultivation,” says Deepak Pawar, a taxi driver.

Locals feel the authorities didn’t pay enough attention to their needs.

It was a double whammy for Vivek Tiwari, a lodge owner in Rudraprayag. He lost 11 members of his family in the disaster and even his lodge swept away in the floods.

“I lost eleven members of my family and this can never be compensated by money. I got some compensation from the government but it is not sufficient to revive my lodge” says Tiwari.

As for the Kedarnath temple, the state government devised a two-phase strategy to restore it. One, constructing huge walls behind the temple to protect it by re-channelizing the rivers Mandakini and Saraswati. Two, developing a new township at Lyncholi with a rope way service to the Kedarnath temple. The authorities have managed to develop Lyncholi but they still haven’t built the walls to protect the temple.

Activists feel that the government is selectively carrying out reconstruction work. Several roads were rebuilt but villages around them were not rehabilitated. Helipads were quickly constructed before demolishing unsafe buildings.

“The government efficiently rebuilt highways, but villages even a kilometer close to the highway have not seen much change. Locals of these villages were the worst-hit because they survived entirely on the temple-economy. They had jobs as long as pilgrims thronged the Kedarnath temple,”says activist Tanmay Mamgain.

Environmentalists blame unscientific development and multiple hydro power projects on the rivers for such massive destruction which caused hundreds of villages to submerge.

But two years on, after witnessing one of the worst floods India has seen, the state government claims to be better prepared to handle any disaster.