The Tandava. Nature’s dance of fury in the divine valley.
July 1, 2013. Rain. It came down hard and heavy soaking the people down to the bone. Standing in a line waiting for their darshan at the Kedarnath Temple, they had no option, but to get drenched. Many of them saw the rain as a cleansing shower before they met the lord of the temple, Lord Shiva, others saw it merely as an irritant.
What none of them knew was that this rain would transform into a monster powerful
enough to wash away all the escape routes as it went on its devastating course.
Over Sunday and Monday, June 16-17, 2013, when a series of cloudbursts wreaked havoc in 5 districts of Rudraprayag, Uttarkashi, Chamoli, Pithoragarh and Tehri, there were nearly 12,000 people at Kedarnath and Gaurikund–the stretch that bore the brunt of the deluge. Ten days later, about 6,000 had been rescued from Kedarnath. More than 800 bodies were recovered in and around Kedarnath. Hundreds were reported missing.
The cloudbursts led to flash floods that swept away mountainsides, villages, people, animals, houses, trucks, cars, roads… nothing escaped. Nothing survived, it had no hope of surviving.
Those who survived it say they had never seen anything like this and hope that this was the first and last time they ever saw something like this. The trickle of water that was supposed to be the rain run-off had suddenly taken on immense proportions. The people in the Kedarnath valley were stuck-they had the mountains behind them and the flash flood in front of them.
THE DELUGE IN KEDAR VALLEY
The statue of Lord Shiva at Rishikesh ultimately gives in to the power of the Ganga.
The first of the cloudbursts–signalled by something that sounded like a sudden explosion that shook most of the houses–at Kedarnath took place around 7.30 pm on June 16. Within minutes, the area was full of people running towards the temple screaming“bhago, bhago (run, run)”. The check dam behind the temple crumbled and water gushed towards the temple. Nearly 250 people found shelter at the temple that night. With the temple almost full, the survivors spent the night standing in the temple’s prayer hall. No one knew what was happening outside. All they knew, and that too from the ominous sound of the water hitting the temple walls, was that the township outside was being destroyed. The water kept rising inside the sanctum sanctorum that was already full of people. They hung on to whatever they could find. A man latched on to the bell, another to the chhatri. Some drowned, others floated.
Those who were caught outside were picked up by the gushing waters and tossed around like matchsticks in a hurricane. The first images, as they poured in, showed bodies lying in twisted heaps all over the place–some of them barely recognisable as those of humans.
Dawn broke. The survivors of that first night peeked out only to see that the entire area had been transformed into something that appeared to have been bombed time and again.
But the worst was not over yet.
A second cloudburst on the morning of June 17 made the Chorbadi Tal breach its walls. The massive amount of water released from the lake, combined with that of the incessant rain, flowed down and brought with it a massive mudslide that dislodged boulders and brought them down. All those structures that had withstood the previous night’s onslaught perished under the sheer speed and weight of the water.
The floodwaters weren’t content with ravaging the town of Kedarnath. As it flowed downhill towards flat land, it went through nearly 200 villages with such terrifying speed that the villagers had little or no time to escape. The result: houses, two-three storey buildings came crashing down as the floodwaters washed away the earth they were standing on, people and livestock were no exceptions. Roads and bridges soon became part of the debris the water was carrying with it.
Hotels and houses were crumbling and collapsing into the water, cars were thrown about like paper boats. Only the face of the giant Parmarth Shiva statue in Rishikesh was visible. The lord himself couldn’t withstand the gush of the river that flows from his locks, as the stories go.
Exclusive: Bahuguna kept eyes wide shut as Uttarakhand govt ignored experts’ warning of catastrophe in 2012
|KAUSHIK DEKA | Dehradun, June 28, 2013 | 07:25
In Oct 2012, Uttarakhand govt received a report on the aftermath of flash floods in August, 2012.
. In October 2012, the Uttarakhand government
received a 48-page report called ‘Investigations in the Asi Ganga valley on the aftermath of flash flood/landslide
incidences in August, 2012.’
A team of experts had examined the Uttarkashi disaster where a combination of heavy rainfall and flash floods had swept away vehicular and pedestrian bridges, cutting the Gangotri valley off from the outside world and killing 29 people. As many as 85 villages were damaged and over 500 people were stranded on the Rishikesh-Gangotri National Highway.
The report, complete with pictures of IAF Mi-17s evacuating stranded villagers and details of measures to avoid such calamities, said a disaster of such a magnitude was waiting to happen. And it did, within a year.
The report prepared by the Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre (DMMC) suggested a strict ban on construction in close proximity to the river channel in Uttarkashi. “For this, a detailed survey of the area and identification of high risk zones is recommended,’ said Dr Piyoosh Routela, executive director of the DMMC, a body headed by the state’s chief secretary.
It is not clear what happened to this report. What is known is that nobody acted on the report. “This report has been sent to top district officials for further actions. We are also working on constituting a committee to do the survey of high risk zones. Please don’t assume that we are not working at all,” Routela said. When asked if the chief minister was aware of this report, he tried to evade the question: “How would I know if he has read the report or not?”
Routela also happens to support the state government in its opposition to a December 2012, notification of the Union environment ministry which declared the entire watershed around the 135-km stretch between Gaumukh and Uttarkashi, along the Bhagirathi river, as an eco-sensitive zone under the Environment Protection Act, 1986. This means no construction activity in the area.
The state passed a resolution against the notification, Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna even meeting the prime minister in this connection. “How can there be ban only in Uttarakhand? Just because we have the holy rivers and pilgrims come to our state? There should be uniform policy for all the states. Why no such ban in Himachal Pradesh or Jammu and Kashmir?” said Routela. When told that he advocated a ban on construction, he retorted, “Only in dangerous areas.”
The Uttarakhand government list of failures has more. It failed to provide land to the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) to install two Doppler radars in Nainital and Mussoorie. The Central government had purchased 12 Doppler radars costing Rs 12 crore each from the US-based Weather Detection Systems to strengthen early warning indicators related to disasters; two were sanctioned for Uttarakhand in 2008.
The DMMC report observed that almost all the damage in 2012 had taken place along the river bank. This was caused primarily by abnormally high rainfall in the catchment of the streams. This was, however, a normal phenomenon that had occurred in the past. What had not happened before was the destruction of infrastructure in such huge magnitude simply because there was not much construction along the rivers. But now there has been heavy construction activity in these areas. “This can be attributed to long recurrence interval of such events and the short disaster-related memory of the masses,” the report said. The number of structures along the river increased rapidly even after the devastating floods in Uttarkashi in 1978 which killed nearly 1,000 people.
Cost of tourism
The report also takes note of the presence of large number of tourists during the time when such natural calamities are likely to strike. “The monsoon season coincides with the peak pilgrim season of the state and people in large numbers from across the nation visit Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri, Gangotri and Hemkunt Sahib shrines in the higher Himalayas. Pilgrims and tourists in large numbers were thus stranded at various places during the current monsoon season,” said the report. It could as well be talking about the June 2013 disaster.
The report explained how commercial interests opened the gates to disaster. “It is a general practice in the hills to align roads along rivers and streams. Apart from convenience and comfort, ever increasing economic opportunities in the vicinity of the roads encourages people to settle down in the proximity of the roads even if it implies being exposed to disaster risk. Increasing tourist and pilgrim traffic further promotes this tendency.”
The Uttarakhand government, however, chose to ignore such uncomfortable truths and did not act on any of the recommendations suggested in the report. It said that structures damaged in the floods must be removed from the bank of Asi Ganga and construction of structures in close vicinity of the river should be banned.
Why did the Uttarakhand government ignore this report that pointed at certain doom? Perhaps it was the death toll of 29 that the 2012 Uttarkashi floods are credited with.
A little too late
It’s relatively minuscule when compared with the devastation just 10 months later. Routela said state government officials had a review meeting on his report on June 7 at Uttarkashi. But he could not explain why it took eight months for the first discussion over a report which was an unambiguously clear warning to the state government.
Environmentalists say indiscriminate construction in the ecologically sensitive region is to be blamed for the widespread devastation that the state has witnessed. More than 500 dams have been cleared for construction on the Ganga and its tributaries–the Bhagirathi, the Mandakini and the Alaknanda. With around 95 per cent of the dams being built after the formation of the state in 2000, environmentalists warn that the worst is yet to come.
Environmentalists say the construction of dams, tunnels and roads which require blasting of hills is taking its toll on the local ecology as well. Due to the ensuing deforestation, trees are unable to absorb rainfall. With the state receiving high intensity rainfall, being prone to landslides and the state falling in a high seismic activity zone, the risk of disaster is increased manifold.
However, this argument died quietly a couple of days later, giving way to another argument: that the government was not prepared for something like this.
The blame game had begun. The state government run by Vijay Bahuguna, already stung by the devastation was driven on the back foot with no scope for defence. Bahuguna, responding to all those allegations, claimed that the met department’s prediction was only for a heavy rainfall, a regular thing in the region, not a cloudburst.
But the problem is not in the fact that the met department failed to give a specific warning of a cloudburst. The problem lies in the government’s serpentine and lackadaisical ways of functioning.
Amid all this finger pointing and name calling came unconfirmed news that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi had done a “Rambo” and rescued around 15,000 stranded Gujaratis.
And if that wasn’t enough, politicians also came to blows at Dehradun’s Jolly Grant airport over who would transport 200 tourists who had been rescued. Members of the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) had both booked flights to Andhra Pradesh for the evacuees. They fought over whose plane the tourists would use to go home. (The rescued tourists were finally divided and sent in both the planes!)
WHAT IS A CLOUDBURST?
A sudden, downpour over a limited area as if the entire clouds were to rain down in a matter of minutes. If it rains over a 100 mm in an hour concentrated in a area just a few square kilometres, one can call it a cloudburst. In Uttarkashi and Rudraprayag, it rained 479 mm in the intervening night of June 16-17. They are called cloudbursts because we earlier believed that clouds were a solid mass of water that burst over an area.
WHY AND HOW?
Cloudbursts occur because the warm air current from the ground or below the clouds rushes up and carries the falling raindrops up with it. The rain fails to fall down in a steady shower. This results in excessive condensation in the clouds as new drops form and old drops are pushed back into it by the updraft. Then one of them gives in. The air current slows down or the clouds can’t hold. The resulting violent downpour can dump as much as 70,000 tonnes of water over an acre of land. In India, a cloudburst mostly occurs in the mountains of India where the low monsoon clouds are stopped by the high mountains. But it may happen elsewhere. On July 26, 2005, a cloudburst over Mumbai dumped 1,448 mm of rain in 10 hours.
Every time a major disaster takes place, the relief experts-the Army and Air Force-are called out. It was no different this time either. The first teams to break through and reach the survivors were the army teams.
The rescue teams had their own battles to fight-a non-cooperating weather, inhospitable terrain and survivors who had neither the heart nor the strength to go on. As the first of the survivors reached safety, the evacuees told horrific tales of how they had been robbed by locals-the security agencies recovered Rs 1.4 crore from three rescued sadhus who had apparently robbed the dead and living. How they had no food to eat and were asked to pay Rs 1,000 for a packet of biscuits that cost Rs 5. Stories of how chopper companies had demanded anything from Rs 6,000 to Rs 3 lakh to evacuate the stranded were also told. They narrated stories of how people were killed for their belongings. They told stories of how while walking to safety someone in the group-dehydrated and tired-just fell by the roadside and died. They told stories of sacrifices and of survival.
There were men who had the 1,000-yard stare in their eyes, but said nothing; what could they say-that they had lost their whole family to the floods? Little children sobbing quietly in corners-a two-year-old with fractures in both legs asking for her dead parents-told stories of how their parents had sacrificed themselves to ensure that their children lived.
The Army and the Indian Air Force had their task cut out-rescue as many people as possible and restore a semblance of normality in the area. A daunting task considering the circumstances. The jawans did what they could-even giving up their lives to save those who were stranded. A chopper crash killed 20 people, all of them security personnel from various branches of the armed forces.
Video and still image footage shows army men walking down the mountains carrying those who couldn’t walk any further. Keeping to their mandate to save lives, the army jawans built Burma bridges, harnesses and lifted people from one point to another to get them to safety.
At the same time, the inclement weather conditions made things difficult. Continuous rain made the terrain even more treacherous. And if that wasn’t enough, a 3.5 magnitude earthquake hit the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand on Thursday (June 27), spreading panic in the area.
The grim work continued. The deceased had to be given their last rites. And amid fears of the possibility of an epidemic, mass cremations were conducted but after proper prayers had been done.
BACK TO KEDARNATH
No matter what happens, life has to return to normal. That is an eventuality and a law of nature that cannot be overthrown.
The state government has a massive reconstruction and revival task ahead of it. In his own words, Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna has said that the scale of destruction is far too much for his state to manage on its own and that it will take more than three years for the state to return to normal.
For the state, it is not just a major setback in its plans to become one of the most preferred tourism locations; it is a regression into the past.
Building roads and other infrastructure will take some time, what will take the maximum time will be the rebuilding of lives and livelihoods of the locals who have lost everything they had built over the years. For the locals, it will be equally difficult to go on with their lives considering that many families, and in some cases whole villages, have lost their earning male population as well as the primary source of their income–tourism. More than anything else, it is this loss that they have to come to terms with and carry on with determination to honour their dead. More than the government, it is the locals who have to revive the state to what it was once and make it better.
The destruction and the lives lost should serve as a lesson for the state government to ensure that conditions are not created for a similar catastrophe. After all, it takes years to make a state prosperous, but just one raindrop is enough to cause a lake to overflow and cause wide-spread destruction.
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-Bhavneet Singh Aurora
Efforts on to evacuate 900 people in Uttarakhand, extricate bodies
Dehradun, July 1 (PTI): Last ditch efforts were on to evacuate about 900 people from Badrinath amid overcast conditions at some places in Uttarakhand where authorities were grappling with the task of extricating bodies from under tonnes of debris lying in Kedarghati and their cremation on Monday.
Despite bad weather at places including Dehradun, chopper operations began on Monday in Chamoli district to evacuate about 300 pilgrims and 600 locals from Badrinath shrine to Joshimath from where they will be brought further down by road.
According to latest official figures, approximately 3000 persons have been reported missing after the tragedy.
The Chief Secretaries of the states concerned have been asked to verify the list and if the lost people are not traced in a month they will be declared dead.
On the 16th day of the calamity on Monday, only 36 bodies have been disposed of amid necessary rituals so far in the worst-hit Kedarnath shrine area with no cremation having taken place there over the past two days, officials said.
The state government has sent a 200-member team of medical experts, trained police personnel and support staff from the municipal corporation to the Valley to perform the onerous task of extricating the bodies and their ritual cremation.
|Jyothi Castelino and Angelina, wife and daughter of Wing Commander Darryl Castelino, at his funeral procession in Mumbai on Sunday. Thousands joined the last journey of the air force officer who commanded the crew of the Mi-17 V5 helicopter that crashed in Uttarakhand last week during rescue-and-relief operations. “He made me feel like a queen and treated my children, Ethan and Angelina, like a prince and a princess,” Jyothi said. “I shall cherish every moment of my 10-year married life for the rest of my life till the time we meet again.” (AP picture)
Published: June 30, 2013 01:16 IST | Updated: June 30, 2013 11:22 IST
The heavens fall
The HinduUnregulated constructions at Karnaprayag along the Pindari river. Photo: V.V. Krishnan
THE SUNDAY STORY When floods and mudslides swept through Uttarakhand, they removed in one fell swoop the effects of many years of neglect and corruption. It will take political will to leave the hills undisturbed, and avoid a repeat of the death and destruction
Uttarakhand has come a long way from the Chipko movement of the ‘70s, when women hugged trees to protect them from being felled, to the present times when market-driven development is threatening to rip apart the valley. The region sustains a large part of the country through the perennial rivers that originate in the Himalayan glaciers.
The hill State, source of the Ganga, is also the site of the Char Dham pilgrimage which attracts Hindu believers who undertake it at least once in a life time. This year, the pilgrimage became a nightmare for thousands who fell victim to landslips and floods with the Alaknanda, the Mandakini and the Ganga unleashing unprecedented devastation.
Nature’s fury reinforced the fact that preserving the ecosystem and the harmonious balance with human beings cannot be compromised. Moreover, the fragility of the Himalayas is due to its steep slopes, which should be a major consideration while planning for development, with the participation of locals. A watershed approach to soil and water conservation that drains out rainwater into the river is a must.
Traditionally, agriculture, forestry, horticulture and animal husbandry have been the mainstay of sustainable income-generating activity in hilly regions, with women at the centre.
In recent years, though, commerce and the quest for short-term gains have prompted successive governments in Uttarakhand to allow new hotel clusters, resorts and commercial complexes to come up on river boundaries.
Hydel projects have been constructed in the seismic zone, and many more are planned. Roads have been built haphazardly by blasting through the vulnerable Himalayas, destabilising them and loosening up boulders, soil and plantations.
Despite protests by local residents, builders and contractors have been allowed to dump vast mounds of debris into the rivers that killed pilgrims as gushing floodwaters brought up the detritus and boulders.
Afforestation, which should be an integral part of any development activity, has been given the go-by, whereas the fragile Himalayan ecosystem cannot be endlessly exploited.
The Chairperson of Gandhi Peace Foundation and Sarva Sewa Sangh, Radhaben Bhatt, who, having being born and raised in the valley, describes herself as “Uttarakhand ki beti.” She is clear that corruption is at the root of haphazard growth of construction activity. “For whom is this unplanned development and at whose cost,” she asks, speaking toThe Hindu.
When the Kedarnath landslips and floods occurred, Radhaben was touring the State to protest against the government’s decision to allow a Coca Cola bottling plant to come up on Gauchar land in Charba village. “For years, villagers had done afforestation on this land with the State refusing to help in any way, and now it is selling this land to the Coke company for Rs. 19 lakh per acre. It will cut down all the trees on village land and allow the company to extract six lakh litres of water a day. This is the kind of politician-private company nexus that is destroying the valley,” she asserts.
After the completion of the 1000-MW Tehri dam across the Bhagirathi, 18 more projects are planned across the Alaknanda, Mandakini, Pinder and Ganga.
However, last December, following protracted protests by activists, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests declared the 100 km of Bhagirathi watershed an eco-sensitive zone and banned all construction activity, including large dams, stone-quarrying, polluting industries, commercial felling of trees, saw mills and so on.
Questions are being asked about why warnings were not issued about the impending danger on the fateful night of June 16 when it all began. The Central Water Commission (CWC), tasked with issuing flood warnings, says it does not have a Flood Forecasting Station in the command area of the Alaknanda and Kedarnath.
In fact, experts say the onset of monsoon — early by two weeks — itself should have alerted the State government as the Kedarnath and Badrinath pilgrimages were at their peak then. The two days of incessant rain on June 15 and 16 should have swung authorities into action, but that did not happen.
The claim by CWC officials and Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna that the Tehri dam prevented Rishikesh, Hardwar and parts of western Uttar Pradesh from being washed away were a ruse to keep alive the proposal for large dams in the eco-sensitive zone.
Himanshu Thakker, of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, says the claim is nothing but “hype.” “Data show that if the Tehri dam were not there, the water level downstream might have risen earlier on June 17 than the levels eventually reached on June 18; but the levels would have been lower than the peak levels reached on June 18 at Rishikesh and Haridwar.”
Experts point out that construction activity in the hill State should not be confused with development, which must be people-oriented.
In the hills, it must be rural and cottage industries, agro-forestry, hill agriculture, animal husbandry and technology to reduce drudgery for women, besides enhancing literacy and providing for sanitation, drinking water and domestic fuel. Tourism may be allowed, but should be regulated.
In the ‘land of the gods,’ it makes sense to plan robust shelters en route to the pilgrim spots and build pathways that makes climbs easier, especially for the aged. Small hydel projects that produce electricity and help local entrepreneurship should replace the idea of large dams.
‘Rainy’ June ends on deficit note
– July downpour hope for parched pockets
|PINAKI MAJUMDAR | Monday , July 1 , 2013 |
Jamshedpur, June 30: From 21 per cent surplus to 12 per cent deficit, the monsoon’s June saga hasn’t had an exactly happy ending. But, the dark cloud has a silver lining. Weathermen believe a July bounty will turn around Jharkhand’s rainfall fortune.
Statistics show that the loss percentage has been on a gradual rise since June 25, when the deficit meter read a negligible eight in the state. However, inadequate precipitation in the past week pushed up the rain loss by four per cent on Sunday. While the average normal rain received in June is 197.5mm, Jharkhand has notched 173.3mm — a deficit of 12 per cent.
The parched list (see box) includes districts like Palamau, Giridih, Simdega, Sahebganj, Hazaribagh, Dumka and West Singhbhum. A few other districts like Ranchi, Khunti, East Singhbhum, Bokaro, Latehar, Lohardaga, Jamtara and Gumla have, however, remained in the rain god’s good books.
The Patna Meteorological Centre is not alarmed though. “The IMD has predicted a good spell of rain in July. Monsoon will be very active from the second week, which will help overcome the deficit,” explained a senior weather analyst.
The forecast on Sunday evening also predicted thundershowers in most places across the state in the next 24 hours. The Patna weather office has also issued heavy rain warning at isolated places in 48 hours.
The Regional Meteorological Centre in Calcutta echoed Patna. Officials said twin atmospheric systems would result in good rainfall here.
“A low pressure over Bihar, persisting for the last couple of days, and a cyclonic circulation extending up to 1.5km above the sea level over Gangetic Bengal will impact Jharkhand’s weather. It will increase rainfall activity,” said the duty officer.
He added that the axis of the monsoon trough was passing through Bihar, which was a positive indication.
Since the advent of monsoon on June 10, Ranchi has recorded 360.7mm, a surplus of 35 per cent. Last year, the rains had hit the state on June 19 and the rain–meter in the capital stood at 270mm after the month ended.
Jamshedpur, on the other hand, has witnessed 247mm in the first month of monsoon, a surplus of 11 per cent. Last year, the steel city had received 203.7mm till June-end.
Director of Patna Meteorological Centre A.K. Sen said that the monsoon flow was likely to be “activated further” in another 48 hours. “Computer simulation indicates that the flow will strengthen to end the dry spell in districts like Sahebganj, Simdega, Deoghar and Dumka,” he added.
Sunday’s analysis and satellite pictures also indicate that the monsoon trough line had come down to lower layers of the atmosphere, which is considered a sign for a good spell of rain.