[Indresh Maikhuri is a member of the CPI(ML)’s Uttarakhand State Committee, and is organising people’s relief efforts in the Garhwal mandal of the State. This is a report sent by him soon after arriving at the disaster site.]

Uttarakhand is in the throes of a tragic disaster. For the last three days, ever since the start of the heavy rains, we have been in constant touch with the local administration at Joshimath in order to get information, give suggestions and offer assistance as citizens. However, the half-baked insufficient information provided by the administration has been far from satisfactory.

Therefore, on June 19, 2013 CPI(ML)’s Garhwal committee member Com. Atul Sati, Mahdeep Panwar from the AISA and I set out to study the situation from close quarters. Govindghat is barely 20-25 kms from Joshimath. But in spite of travelling the first 10-15 kms by motorcyle, it took us about two hours to reach Govindghat. At two places, large portions of the road have been washed away and it is possible to get across only by climbing a steep ascent. As natives of the hills this was a comparatively less difficult task for us but for people from outside unaccustomed to the hills, climbing up the steep mountainside and then again descending was a difficult and terrifying experience, despite being assisted by the jawans from the ITBP.

The scene at Govindghat was horrifying. The Alaknanda has extended its banks upto the place where markets had existed until recently. The main bazaar of Govindghat is now stacked with boulders of varying sizes. Each room of the Gurudwara is filled with sand dunes 4 to 5 feet high. The shops behind are also filled with sand the shopkeepers are trying to exricate the goods from beneath the sand. The polce chowki in the Gurudwara complex is also filled with sand. Branches of trees have also fallen into some rooms of the Gurudwara. More than half of the road leading from the Gurudwara and the main bazaar to the Badrinath Road has vanished. Assistant Professor in Geology at DBS (PG) College, Dehradun Prof. Pradeep Bhatt who was travelling to Badrinath with his family and has been stranded at Govindghat for the last 3 or 4 days tells a story which leaves us shaken. In his hotel at about 2 in the night he heard great rumbling sounds from the river and he, along with with his wife, elderly mother-in-law and carrying their two small children, ran towards higher grounds. After reaching the higher part of the road he realized that his car was parked in the parking lot below. He described to us how, as soon as he had brought the car up from the parking lot, the road behind them was washed away. A few seconds’ delay and his car and he himself would have been submerged in the river.

Hotels, parking lots and hundreds of motor cycles and cars were washed away by the Alaknanda. Eyewitnesses told us that the driver (possibly also the owner) of a car which was washed away jumped into the seething river saying that there was no point in remaining alive when his car worth 10 lakhs was lost! Two children who were left sleeping in a car by the driver while their parents had gone to Hemkund were also submerged along with the car. Eyewitnesses also told of many drivers sleeping in their cars being washed away.

Claims of rescue and relief operations on a war footing are being made through the media. At Joshimath the whir of helicopters engaged in rescue work can be heard from 6 am to 6 pm. They are bringing people stranded in remote areas to the safety of Joshimath. But we can imagine how long it will take for two helicopters, each with a seating capacity of 6, to rescue about 14,000 stranded people! The Sikh pilgrims stranded at Govindghat are angry because neither are efforts being made to rescue them, nor is assistance of any kind reaching them. When we reached Govindghat and spoke to the Sikh pilgrims, they surrounded us and told us we were the first people from the government to reach them. We told them that we were not from the government but part of the common people. These Sikh pilgrims are stranded in Govindghat with their vehicles which for many of them are their means of livelihood. Therefore they are not prepared to leave their vehicles unattended here and return home. They told us that for 2 days they had nothing to eat. Then they themselves dug out grains and other edibles from the debris in the Gurudwara, washed and cooked them and are feeding everyone in the langar. These Sikh pilgrims upset not only with the Uttarakhand government but also with the Punjab government and the SGPC who have also ignored their plight. They are also very angry at the people who use even this moment of tragedy for profiteering. Manjeet Singh and Charanjeet Singh from Mohali and Lakhbir Singh from Patiala tell us in enraged tones that in the past few days a bar of soap was sold here for Rs. 40, a plate of rice and a packet of Maggi noodles (worth Rs. 10) for Rs. 100 each. The Donation box of the Gurudwara was broken open and looted and windows of stationary vehicles broken and goods stolen. On the one hand there are people offering cool drinks and food to victims who manage to climb down the steep descent, but on the other hand there are also people who loot and steal even from the distressed victims. Such opportunistic looting has become a disease which is rampant in the ruling classes as well as the common people, the only difference being that it is termed ‘corruption’ in the former and ‘inhumanity’ in the latter.

The bridge across the river from Govindghat to Ghanghariya and Hemkund has been washed away. About 200 pilgrims are stranded across the Alaknanda without food and drink. Jawans from the ITBP were trying to pull them up with ropes but so far it had not been possible to bring them across the seething river. In the absence of proper cleanliness in Govindghat and the rampant malodour, garbage and flies, there is certain to be an epidemic of diseases if preventive measures are not taken promptly.

Schools and municipality rest houses in Joshimath have been turned into temporary relief camps where the victim pilgrims and villagers have been accommodated. People from Bhyundar village on the road to Hemkund Saheb are in the municipality council rest house at Joshimath. The elderly ladies from this village tell us that they have lost everything in this disaster, including fields, houses (some single and some double storied) and cattle sheds. They lament that though they have come away, they have been obliged to leave behind their cattle. Some have left their cattle free so that they could graze and try to escape in case of disaster. Some villagers whose cattle have recently calved have stayed behind with their cattle.

Apart from pilgrims and local villagers, others who are feared to be in the clutches of this disaster are the locals who go into the high alpine meadows every summer to collect ‘cordyceps sinesis’, also known in some areas as ‘yarsa gumba’. This is a fungus or mushroom which looks insect-like and is available in the alpine meadows when the snow melts. This has great medicinal value and is sold in the international market at the rate of Rs. 5 to 6 lakhs per kilo. The government system is that the right to collect this fungus will be given to certain persons by the forest panchayats. After collection, these persons will hand over the fungus to the panchayats who will sell them and distribute the income to the collectors in the ratio of their collections, after keeping back 5% royalty for itself. It is the responsibility of the district Collectors and Forest officers (DFOs) to ensure that this system is followed. However, this system is not visible anywhere on the ground. Every year the collectors go to the alpine meadows for the fungus (known as ‘keeda jadi’), which is then illegally sold to smugglers for lakhs of rupees whereas the official rate is Rs. 50,000 per kilo. This year too the concern for the collectors who have gone into the alpine meadows in search of the fungus does not seem to be on the agenda of the rescue and relief operations. There are reports of ten such collectors who had gone to the Urgam valley in Joshimath having lost their lives and several others missing.

Several questions arise in the aftermath of this disaster, answers to which do not seem to be forthcoming. How will the 100 or more victims stranded at Govindghat with their vehicles be brought to safety? The police have announced that as it will take at least 15 days to repair the roads, the victims are advised to leave their vehicles and return home. The Sikh travellers are unwilling to risk leaving behind their vehicles which are their only source of livelihood. Another question is, who will compensate for the hundreds of vehicles which have already been washed away and how will the compensation be effected? The villagers of Bhyundar are asking how they will live now that everything in their village has been destroyed, and if they cannot go back, how long can they remain in Joshimath? After this total destruction, what will be the fate of their children’s education?

In the midst of this disaster, the Army and the paramilitary forces will be praised for their rescue work and indeed their efforts are praiseworthy. But the Nepali workers who are the silent soldiers in these rescue operations and who carry heavy bags, suitcases etc. of the victims on these steep roads where even carrying oneself is a difficult task, these workers will receive neither praise nor acknowledgement. Without their efforts, the rescue and relief operations will be near impossible to carry out.

This was a natural disaster but the enormity of the disaster was caused by the role of man in ravaging nature. The offensive model of development foisted on the people by the government through deceit and tyranny, destroys everything except profit for the tyrant. Just above Joshimath, the blasting of the mountainsides, tunnel-making and throwing of debris into the rivers for building hydel projects, the water released from the barrages and the breaking of the barrages has increased the intensity of the disaster manifold. Victims from Bhyundar village tell us that just 15 days ago they had gone with a complaint to the Super Hydro Company constructing a hydel project on the Lakshmanganga that the blasting activity was shaking the foundations of their homes. The Border Roads Organization has also contributed to the ravaging of the mountains through indiscriminate dynamiting and throwing of debris into the rivers. Unplanned, unregulated urbanization is another contributing factor to the escalating natural disasters. The main bazaar, hotels and parking lots which were washed away in Govindghat had been built practically encroaching into the river. The Gurudwara at Govindghat which is today filled with sand and tree branches is also built right on the banks of the Alaknanda. Did the authorities who sanctioned this 5 storied building on the river bank not realize that it would be an easy prey to natural disasters of this kind? The parking lots right on the banks of the river, which charged Rs. 600 as parking fees, have been washed away. This money would have been collected to ensure the safety of the vehicles. Who will take the responsibility for the vehicles which were washed away—the owners of the parking lots which were built in unsafe locations or the police and the administration whose pockets were made heavier from part of the earnings of these parking lots?

BOX

CPI (ML) appeal for relief funds in Uttarakhand floods

Uttarakhand is suffering a calamity of Himalayan proportions, with heavy rains and cloudbursts causing devastating floods. Thousands of lives are likely to have been lost, and thousands remain stranded, deprived of homes, loved ones, and means of livelihood. CPI(ML) shares the grief of the bereaved families.

Activists of CPI(ML) on the ground, especially in the worst-affected Garhwal and Pithoragarh regions, are organising rescue and relief operations, working closely with rescue teams.

We are launching a nationwide campaign for flood relief in Uttarakhand. We appeal to you to make your contributions by cheque/draft in favour of “CPIML”. Please indicate that the donation is for “Uttarakhand Flood Relief”.

Please mail your donations to:

U-90, Shakarpur

Delhi 110 092, India

The tragedy in Uttarakhand today is more man-made than natural, linked directly with the corporate-driven, anti-people model of ‘development’ undertaken in the State, involving indiscriminate deforestation, big dams in ecologically sensitive areas, plunder of natural resources and rampant absence or violation of environment protection laws. The consequences today are being borne by the poorest people in Uttarakhand. In the days to come, CPI(ML) will also seek your support and cooperation in the struggle to ensure that Uttarakhand’s poor receive the compensation and rehabilitation measures that they need, and that immediate steps are taken to reverse the disastrous course of environmental devastation in the name of development.

Contact numbers of comrades organising relief work in Uttarakhand:

Jagat Martoliya: 09411308833

Indresh Maikhuri: 09412120571

CPI(ML)’s Uttarakhand State Secretary Rajendra Pratholi can also be contacted at 09456188623