Uttarakhand floods - Human made disaster & a wake-up warning

Photo: The Hindu/Virender Singh Negi

I talked to TK Ramesh, a colleague at ActionAid India, who survived the devastating floods that struck Uttarakhand on the 15th of June. Here is an excerpt;

Susan: Ramesh, can you tell me about what you saw?

Ramesh: My exposure and experience between 16th -21st of June 2013 in Uttarakhand was a jurisprudence evidence for the disaster and losses caused by human war on mother nature;  result of continuous ecological exploitation for commercial purposes and above all Government’s collusion and inaction in protecting either humans or the nature.

Uttarakhand witnessed heavy rains and cloud burst between 15th – 17th June 2013. On 16th when I landed in Dehra Dun, the entire city was flooded, looking like an island. Situation continued on 17th. But neither were there forecasted messages/warnings nor situation alert by authorities.

Susan: What was the initial response from the concerned authorities?

Ramesh: In-spite of continued and furor calls to different officials and sources no one could sound or alert on the situation. Hence, people took up the uphill journey left to their own risks and perils. Vehicles rolled towards Tehri – Garhwal Rudra Prayag, Uttarkashi to face the disaster with no clue of the situation ahead.

In the entire stretch of journey we did not receive any cautions/messages or could see any authorities (including a police posting). Even a marriage party in 2 buses and 3 vehicles were also the victims of the situation.

This inaction of authorities pushed us to the mouth of disaster and challenges. A precautionary warning would have saved us from this situation and a greater support. But the authorities failed.

Susan: What is the general sense among the locals about what caused this flood?

Ramesh: It is a human made devastation. This well witnessed major devastation and disaster was high (in and around) the dams and areas covering dam related activities. The major culprit being the Tehri dam that has swallowed not only human inhabitation with more than 300 villages submerged, with entire forest land and major part of the sub -Himalayan mountain vanishing.

Adding to this sour the fearful giant tunnels (reportedly of 20-25 km stretch and numerous in numbers) have shaken the entire sub-Himalayan belt causing heavy landslide being the “source of sorrow” to entire Uttarakhand. Vanished and vanishing forests, mountains and common lands caused the cloud burst to wash away the families and generation.

The common citizen cried while industrialists and bureaucrats smiled. Common people are paying with their lives for the revenue of Private projects and greedy projects. Still Government’s advocacy for dams, mining, deforestation, is un-stoppable.

Susan: Can you tell us about how you survived?

Ramesh: Challenged with the situation and left out to our own strengthens (physical & mental– to clear the boulders on the way, cross un-ending flooding water, to walk on muddy washed away roads with grave like quick sand ready to sink at any wrong step) we started trekking miles and miles crossing affected hamlets and washed away patches of agri-lands. In-spite of calling the district disaster centers, Government authorities at District and Tehsil levels no help was forthcoming including an earth mover (JCB) to remove the boulders and mud. In Ghansali (sub-urban town) we met angry agitated people shouting slogans in front of local Govt. Office. Not a single official was available to attend the office. Reportedly the officials had fled from the scene and were absent from office.

But it was of greater support and help by wayside villagers, co-commuters who helped us with food and shelter. Guided by ourselves with hearsay stories of disasters and deaths at Kedarnath and Badrinath area we reached our destination (Doni village at Bhilangana district) on 17th night by trekking a major distance. Normal 7 hrs journey by road from Dehradun got us to 36 hrs of trekking.  

Thanks to authorities for their insensitivity and inaction.  

Susan: What about local citizens?

Ramesh: With mounted pressure from other state Govts. & Central Govt. Uttarakhand Govt. belatedly pressed the entire machinery for rescue operation of tourists at Kedarnath & Badrinath sector.

However, many calls and cries of slow and/or low action were reported even by tourists. Calls for assistance and supports were heard all the way.

In the process 100’s of villages and thousands of communities failed to draw the media coverage, Govt. support and timely assistance. As we hear few villages in Tehri Garwal area have vanished and many villages have become islands with no communication. Efforts to contact locals drew blank as most of them were out of communication.  They are at the mercy of nature.

Except for the shining sun and stopped rain no support by authorities was available even until 21st June to locals on my way back to Dehradun. 

-      The End –

As I sat in the office talking to Ramesh, reports of a deteriorating climate hampering further rescue operations were trickling in. It was being reported that nearly 22,000 people are still stuck in the hills waiting for the disaster relief team and the defense forces to rescue them.

Ramesh also shared with us a few scenes of devastation he caught on his mobile phone, while being stuck at the hills. You can see them here 

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