Survivors of the Uttarakhand flash floods share hair-raising tales of their ordeal and yet-to-be-explained freak walls of water gushing down hill slopes. SOMA BASU reports from ground zero how the tragedy unfolded
At 7.18 pm on June 16, Ram Singh heard the loudest crack in 45 years of his life. It was the deafening roar of a disaster. “I felt as if the sky had been torn asunder. Within seconds, a massive wall of water gushed towards Kedarnath Temple. Huge boulders flung into the sky like an explosion. In less than 15 minutes, thousands of people were swept away,” he recalls lying at the Rudraprayag district hospital. Singh was on the Char Dham yatra with 17 people from his hometown Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh. He is returning with only five. The rest are missing. The group had gone to see aarti at the temple. Singh says his daughter, brother, sister-in-law and 70-year-old uncle must have been ambling around the market after the aarti when disaster struck. “My son wanted to see the hills, so I took him along. My wife followed us,” he says. “That is how we survived. I have no clue where the rest are.”
Six kilometres below, Rambara village is a resting point for devotees going to Kedarnath Temple. Its 43-year-old resident Sankar Gosai shudders to recount the sight of the enormous amount of water gushing down the mountain. In no time, long stretches of a road and houses were swept away. “It had been raining nonstop since June 14. Fearing flood, we had climbed up the hill. But we never imagined that such a huge amount of water could swoop down all so suddenly,” he says. Gosai walked down the precarious mountain for two full days till he reached Rudraprayag town.
Rakesh Singh, 36, had a miraculous escape because he clim bed the temple roof. He came to Kedarnath with 12 family members. He does not know where the others are.
It all started at Chorabari glacier, say people who have managed to return. The glacier lies on the slope of the 6,940- metre Kedarnath peak of the Himalaya. The glacier is 7 km in length, its basin area is 38 sq km and the ice cover is 5.9 sq km. It has two snouts—one is the source of the Mandakini (at 3,865 metres) and the other becomes the Chorabari Lake (at 3,835 metres). People recall that on June 16 the lake exploded when clouds burst over it. The lake is 6 km from the temple upstream the Alaknanda. Ensuing rains cut off the hilly districts of Uttar kashi, Rudraprayag, Chamoli and Pith oragarh from the mainland and battered the land till it crumbled.
Pithoragarh faced the disaster twice—on June 16 and on June 22, says Naresh Ram, resident of Kholi village.
There, the lake of Milam glacier burst when clouds burst over it leading to overflow of two rivers which emerge from the glacier—the Goriganga and the Kaliganga. The lake still holds a lot of water, so the district may witness a similar disaster soon, he warns.
“I have never seen anything like this. It was as if someone was throwing water from under the ground,” says Vivek Rawat, 27, who worked at a hotel in Gaurikund, about 15 km from Kedarnath. Almost everything in Gaurikund is demolished, he says. Eyewitnesses have similar stories from Kedarnath Temple and Hemkunt Sahib. Nobody is yet sure of the reason.
On June 18, Sushil Singh, resident of Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, ran down from Gaurikund to Gaurigaon to save his life. There is no trace of the 14 people he came with, he says. Around 5,000 people like him reached the village. But most were ill. They had swallowed mud that had flowed with the water. Many died of it at Gaurigaon. The rest waited beside the bodies, to be rescued.
On June 19, as the army was battling against time to rescue people, there was utter chaos in the administration. Bureaucrats, sitting inside expensive hotels, were screaming on their mobile phones. At the Rudraprayag police control room, no one knew what action to take. It took Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde to come down to Uttarakhand to admit that there was no coordination among government agencies, which was hampering rescue operations. The only piece of information that seemed to make sense was an 11-page report that the district information officer was quoting to journalists. The report, prepared by the State Disaster Management Control Room in Dehradun, gave an assessment of the scale of the disaster.
At 5 pm, Rudraprayag town welcomed the first batch of people from Badrinath, Govindghat, Pandukeshwar and Gaurikund who came in 11 vehicles. The Army and the state government had managed to link the upper hills to the town. As the buses and private taxis stopped, people ran towards water, food stalls and the medical desk where the Rudraprayag Vyapar Mandal had organised free service for victims.
Akhilesh Srivastava of Jhansi wept on seeing food. His family was stranded at Hemkunt Sahib near the Valley of Flowers. Army personnel helped them walk down to Govindghat in Chamoli district, from where they were taken to Joshimath. They trekked till Rudraprayag because they had run out of money. “Private taxis were charging double the fare and the private helicopters were demanding Rs50,000 per person to reach us to safety,” he says.
During the trek, they sucked their wet clothes when thirsty. His six-year-old son chewed grass in the night when he could not withstand hunger pangs.
On June 20, when Down To Earth reached Kedarnath, it was clear that the State Disaster Management Control Room had presented only 10 per cent of the real picture. The temple town was stinking of rotting bodies. The ground level had risen by about two metres and bodies could be seen stuck in the debris at about every 10 metres. The lanes were strewn with crumbled tin sheets and broken pieces of wood. “Kedarnath is now haunted,” says Rakesh Singh, waiting at Rudraprayag to be airlifted by an Army sortie.
Every year, Uttarakhand’s Garhwal region receives pilgrims in thousands for Chhota Char Dham yatra—Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. It also receives heavy rains and suffers floods. But the loss the region has suffered this time is horrifying.
According to the Char Dham control room records, there were 26,000 people in Kedar Valley on June 16. This is where the temple is located. Records also show that 39,000 people had left the valley that day for Badrinath, Gangotri, Yamunotri and Hemkunt Sahib. The government’s figure of about 800 total deaths is too conservative. The number, clearly, is in many thousands.
The raging Bhagirathi, Alaknanda and Mandakini have swollen like never before and swept away whatever came in their way. As many as 2,052 houses have been wiped out, 147 bridges have collapsed and 1,307 roads destroyed, says Rakesh Sharma, state infrastructure development commissioner. The upper reaches of Uttarakhand look as if the region has travelled a hundred years back in time.
The Gangotri and Yamunotri highways are damaged at several places. The rivers have damaged the 36-km stretch from Uttarkashi to Bhatwari at six places. Higher up, roads are damaged due to landslides. “The stretch of road between Matli to Maneri in Uttarkashi is so badly damaged that one cannot tell when it can be repaired,” says Sharma. Three drinking water projects have got washed away in Garur block, while 71 streams and 40 canals have been damaged. As per preliminary estimates, says Sharma, the disaster has cost Uttarakhand Rs50,000 crore in infrastructural loss. Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited has suffered loss of Rs77 crore apart from the Rs50 crore lost in power generation.
Who’s the culprit?
Residents now wonder how it all happened. “The river has come down to cleanse Uttarakhand of its greed,” says Ram Chandra, a driver at Dehradun whose family is in Pauri. Thousands paid with their lives for the ablution. The 62-year-old, once a panchayat pradhan, maneuvers his vehicle through the hydropower projects and mutters, “These are the real culprits. Look at them. They ruined us all.”
The mountain was never so fragile, says Harish Rawat, a BSc student in Bhatwari region. Heavy machines plying every day on kuchcha roads have weakened it, he says. “Now we suffer landslides more often.” Rawat lost his home to a landslide in 2010, which wiped out 25 houses and 28 shops.
Ram Prasad Tomar, a driver at Uttarkashi, agrees. “Contractors come from urban areas and do not understand the mountain. They cut it open, which causes landslides. Then, they go bankrupt clearing the debris.”
Near Silli village, 17 km from Rudraprayag, the Mandakini has shifted course and washed away all the structures along its banks, says Prakash Thapliyal, who lost his house. “The river shifted course because of Larsen and Toubro’s Singholi-Bhatwari hydropower project. All the debris was dumped on the riverbed,” he says.
In Srinagar, the training centre of Sashastra Seema Bal was damaged apart from several houses in low-lying areas. “The deluge was the result of the dam at Srinagar. Its floodgates were opened without warning. The water carried all the debris at the dam site and brought it here,” says resident Arun Negi.
In August 2012, when flash floods occurred in Uttarkashi, the Uttarakhand Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre had recommended strict regulation of developmental initiatives near streams and rivers. No heed was paid to it.
In Rudraprayag, no structure is allowed within 100 metres from the river’s banks. The flood widened the river’s course by 15 metres and caused damage worth crores of rupees.
“What else does one expect from the mountain if there is heavy tourist rush at vulnerable areas. The Himalaya is a young mountain and you dynamite it to build roads. Landslides are bound to happen,” says Anand Sharma, executive director of Dehradun Meteorological Centre.
In the wake of the disaster, Jayanthi Natarajan, minister of environment and forests, issued a statement that the National Ganga River Basin Authority had notified 130 km stretch from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi as an ecosensitive zone on December 18, 2012. The notification, thus, prohibits activities such as setting up of hydroelectric power plants of more than 25 MW, extraction of river water for new industrial purposes, mining except for domestic needs, stone quarrying, deforestation, burning of solid waste. Natarajan, however, did not mention that the area near the Alaknanda and the Mandakini has not been notified. This is where stone quarrying is done most.
“Tell me one place in the Himalaya that is not ecosensitive,” says Anil Prakash Joshi, former teacher and founder of non-profit Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation. “Till when will we play with nature?”
With inputs from photographer Soumik Mukherjee