On the afternoon of 16 June, local resident Manav Bisht watched dozens of constables leaving the paramilitary Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) Academy, which stood between his house in Shakti Vihar, a locality in Uttarakhand’s Srinagar town, and the Alaknanda river that had started swelling from 10 am. The waters threatened to enter the academy building after 5 pm and more jawans were shifted to Pauri, the district headquarters.
SSB IG S Bandhopadhyay was aware of the torrential rainfall up in the hills. There was also the flood warning issued by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD). As night fell, the Alaknanda breached the meagre embankment and ravaged the academy building. Sometime after midnight, after drowning the 500-metre stretch of the SSB campus, the torrent rose above the 10-feet-high boundary wall on the other side and entered Shakti Vihar.
Bandhopadhyay’s timely action saved many lives. But busy evacuating his men, he did not inform the district administration. “I didn’t need to tell anyone. They could see what was happening. Everyone had information about the heavy rainfall,” says Bandhopadhyay. But nobody thought it necessary to warn the residents of Srinagar.
So, Bisht, much like his neighbours, was caught unawares when the river entered his house around 1.30 am. Suddenly, there was panic everywhere. Within an hour or so, the entire neighbourhood had gone under the roiling waters. Few managed to get hold of any valuables. Bisht’s family barely managed to escape in the clothes they were sleeping in.
About 100 km away, further up in the hills, another river was also in spate. While the Alaknanda was engulfing parts of Srinagar, the Mandakini began battering the temple town of Kedarnath in the early hours of 17 June. Soon after pilgrims and residents of the pilgrimage centre woke up to sights of devastation, a massive landslide sent huge mounds of rock into the Charbari lake, 6 km upstream of Kedarnath.
Binod Mantri, a pilgrim from West Bengal’s Hooghly, was uneasy since 16 June. With no let-up in the rain, worried locals advised him to shift closer to the Kedarnath temple from his hotel by the river. So he checked into the Rajasthan guesthouse with 16 family members and stayed indoors as landslides, rain and howling wind battered the town. Next morning, the family was preparing to venture out for a quick breakfast when the torrent entered the room. Mantri and his brother-in-law survived by clinging on to the window grill. Everyone else in the family, all 14 of them, climbed onto beds and were swept away within minutes.
“The landslide caused a giant splash like a brick dropped in a bucket of water,” recalls one of the four Indian Army jawans posted at Kedarnath. The mass of rock smashed against the sand and boulders, giving the river momentum to sweep up more rocks on its way to become the destructive force that wiped clean everything in its path. By nine in the morning, Kedarnath had become a ghost town. Rambara, a settlement downstream, simply disappeared.
By 18 June, the magnitude of the disaster became clear. Across 37,000 sq km of the Himalayan state, landslide and floods trapped more than 80,000 tourists, triggering one of the biggest rescue operations by the armed forces and the biggest by helicopters so far. The race against time took its toll even on those who toiled round the clock to save lives. On 20 June, Rudraprayag District Magistrate Vijay Dhaundiyal suffered a heart attack. At least 20 rescue personnel perished, adding to the official death toll of 5,000, which, locals and eyewitnesses claim, will be in the range of 10-20,000 if those who have gone missing are also accounted for.
For each survivor, another seems to have died in this unfolding tragedy. Sixty-five-year-old Aishwarya made it alive, along with just seven of her group of 15. “Standing beside a bonfire to keep warm, she was having coffee at a roadside shop when the flood waters came. Before she could react, out of nowhere, a pack of mules charged towards her, knocking her over and pushing her into the open fire,” said one of her relatives at the Himalayan Institute Hospital Trust in Dehradun, the state capital, where she is being treated for severe burns and an injured hip.
Against heavy odds, it took even the army’s best efforts more than a week to reach the stranded in many areas. “We were nervous when we first got here. We didn’t know if we would be able to pull this off. But today, we are getting the last of the nearly 300 survivors down from Jungle Chatti,” a Fifth Sikh Regiment officer leading the rescue operation in Kedarnath told TEHELKA, while keeping a watchful eye on able-bodied survivors climbing off a rope down a 80-degree, 90-feet-deep drop.
As of 26 June, there are still 5,000 survivors stranded in the Badrinath and Harsil areas and the rescue work — Operation Surya — continues despite intermittent rain and worsening weather conditions. While some locals allege that rescue operations have been skewed towards saving pilgrims and foreigners, villagers of Bhagori and Ganeshpur in Uttarkashi are going out of their way to shelter and feed the stranded. With the armed forces and the administration confident that the last few will be rescued in the next couple of days, the worst seems to be over for the visitors.
The surviving tourists will return home. Uttarakhand and its people will have to face the consequence of this disaster. Nearly 1 lakh of them have become homeless and there is resentment among the locals that rescue efforts have ignored them so far. With more than 300 reported cases, acute diarrhoea is threatening to take epidemic proportions as rotting corpses have begun to contaminate water sources.
Already, the state has estimated the damage to be upwards of Rs 3,000 crore. Insurance companies are looking at claims worth more than Rs 1,000 crore. The Char Dham Yatra has been called off indefinitely. Damaged roads and other infrastructure may take years to rebuild. Religious tourism, the mainstay of Garhwal’s economy, will now have to start from scratch.
In the 2011 census, Uttarakhand’s population was 1.08 crore. The state hosted 2.68 crore pilgrims and tourists in 2010- 11. Since then, the Garhwal religious circuit saw a four-fold increase in the number of pilgrims as year-round access to the shrines — earlier restricted to four months — was allowed.
According to Yatra Rotation Samiti member Sanjay Shastri, around 1 lakh vehicles — 50-60 percent of these not from the state — do three trips of the Char Dham Yatra each year. Since 2005-06, the number of taxis and jeeps registered in the state has jumped tenfold. Since 2010, the state has added 4,500 km of road under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) alone. Its total road length nearly tripled in the past decade.
“People became greedy. Everyone went overboard. How long would the mountain suffer thousands of jeeps and buses crawling up and down and accommodate thousands of tourists? All along the banks of the river, there is construction of houses. Where we used to have tents a few years ago, we have five-storey buildings. At some point or the other, nature had to hit back. This was it,” says Gaurav Singh, who runs a tea stall in Guptakashi village.
And this is when things have gone to plan. After an emotionally-charged political struggle, the creation of the Uttarakhand state in 2000 promised its people their right over the hills, forests and water. At the time, many professed that the new state could build its economy without compromising its pristine hills, by focussing on it and other soft-skill industries. Instead, Uttarakhand decided to go big on tourism, the only industry it had known until then.
In 2001, the state constituted the Uttarakhand Tourism Board and chalked up its tourism policy with the vision to “make Uttaranchal synonymous with tourism”. The focus was on drawing higher numbers of tourists and bigger investment into the state. From 1 crore in 2001, the number of visitors to the state grew to 3 crore in 2010.
Over the decade, a number of schemes and tax rebates for building tourism infrastructure ensured ‘development’ of pristine destinations and mushrooming of hotels and resorts. The state raised the budgetary allocation for tourism by 224 percent in the 10th Plan. At present, 22 tourism projects worth Rs 1,840 crore are coming up on the public-private partnership (PPP) model and account for 47 percent of the total investment in the PPP schemes under implementation in the state.
While promoting unrestricted growth in tourism, the new state decided to exploit its hydropower potential as well. Former chief minister Ramesh Pokhriyal prepared a ‘Vision 2020’ statement to make Uttarakhand a “prosperous state”. With the theme ‘Pahad Ka Pani, Pahad Ki Jawani’, the plan was to harness the natural resources of the state in an optimal manner and create more jobs.
“The state has a capacity to produce at least 40,000 mw of power from hydel projects. Therefore, we have planned to install several hydel power units in the state. The surplus power will be sold to other states. We have invited investors and the response has been very encouraging. To rope in local talent and provide jobs, we have decided to employ local youths in mini hydel power projects,” Pokhriyal was quoted as saying in 2010. The result: 73 hydel projects on the Alaknanda, Mandakini and Bhagirathi, and several more on other rivers of the state.
Unbridled tourism and construction of dams on rivers had one common demand: newer and wider roads across the state.
Uttarakhand started widening its roads in 2002. Till then, all roads here were two-lane, except for the Tehri road, which was widened up to the dam site in the 1990s. The story was to repeat under BC Khanduri, the then surface transport minister.