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For a year now, Shambu Thapliyal wakes up almost every night screaming. A torrential storm stirs high up in the Himalayas. In no time, ice-cold water barrels down the mountain side in a sea of mud and rocks, washing away roads, bridges and picturesque villages. Amid floating debris and corpses, Thapliyal’s house bobs in the water like a paper boat.
For the 64-year-old father of three, it is a recurring nightmare. “What I saw that night is nothing short of a non-stop horror film,” says Thapliyal, who also lost to the floods his small grocery store, the family’s only source of livelihood. “When I try to sleep, these scenes haunt me. When I am awake, I worry about our future.”
As Uttarakhand marks the first anniversary of the devastating floods, thousands of survivors continue to struggle to pick up the pieces, hoping the government will eventually come good on its promise to provide jobs and new homes.
The authorities say the road to recovery is long and painful but that they are making steady progress in putting the state back on its feet, including reopening the route for this year’s Char Dham pilgrimage that is so vital for the local tourism industry.
In Thapliyal’s tin-roof hovel just outside Dehradun, such words of hope mean little. Life for him once revolved around a small grocery store adjacent to his home in Agastamuni village, a clutch of brick-and-mortar and log houses nestled in the folds of the mighty Himalayas in Rudraprayag district. Located on the way to Kedarnath temple, Thapliyal’s shop saw steady business.
That was until the June 16 ‘Himalayan Tsunami’ a year ago which killed, according to official estimates, 4,251 people and swept away thousands of houses and shops, besides destroying a large portion of the state’s road and communications network.
For the flood victims, two issues appear paramount: Housing and livelihood. While the government’s focus has been on quickly rebuilding roads and bridges, many say the authorities have been slow in helping people rebuild their homes and find jobs.
After the disaster, the government announced an immediate compensation of Rs. 2 lakh to every affected family. It also promised to pay Rs. 3,000 a month for a period of two years towards payment of rent for each of 3,320 families which had lost their houses.
It then announced a further compensation of Rs. 5 lakh to each of those families to build a new home with the rider that they must be able to prove they own land.
Most victims say government disbursement of the rent amount has been at best erratic. And the condition attached to the compensation for building houses means that hundreds of people who lost their lands to the floods don’t qualify.
Also, land sharks seeking to exploit the situation have driven real estate prices up.
“Property owners are asking 8-10 times more money than the actual price since there is a dearth of land,” says Raju Barthwal, a real estate dealer.
The government denies any bungling on its part. “There are formalities which the beneficiaries have to fulfil,” says Raghav Langhar, district magistrate of Rudraprayag, trying to explain the reasons for the delay in disbursement of compensation.
In Chamoli, one of the five worst affected districts, dozens of people continue to live in makeshift camps in absence of any financial help from the government.
With tourism badly hit, the disaster broke the backbone of the state economy. From a peak of 14-15 million tourists visiting the Char Dham pilgrim circuit in the last few years, tourist inflow has trickled to just 70,000 this year.
For the people of Uttarakhand, the fallout is crushing. Santosh Tiwari, 23, saw his tourist lodge at Kedarnath washed away in front of his eyes. He hasn’t recovered since.
“We now make do with whatever produce we get from a small farm we have,” he says.
As business and jobs dried up, thousands of people have left for the cities, traveling as far as Delhi and Mumbai to find work. Says Thapliyal, whose elder son now works in a private company in Delhi: “We survive on whatever money my son sends. Without that I don’t know how we would survive here.”
The government is banking on grants and loans to get the state back on track, spending most of the money on rebuilding infrastructure. The scale of the disaster is clear from the fact that some 4,200 villages were affected and nearly 9,000-km of roads destroyed.
Flood survivors say building roads and bridges was fine but the government needs to look at creating employment opportunities for them.
Full coverage:North India rain fury
Back inside Thapliyal’s shack, the father of three worries endlessly about the family’s future.
“This uncertainty is killing us all,” he says. “Maybe it would have been better if we had died in the floods.”
PICKING UP THE PIECES
One year later, it feels as if I am still running: Bhagwati Prasad
Bhagwati Prasad, 46, priest, Bhatwari village in Uttarkashi
It was 9 am on June 17. I had just returned from the temple and was having breakfast with my family, when we heard a rumbling sound. I asked my family to stay inside and rushed out to see what was happening.
The sight made my heart stop. Huge boulders were rolling off the mountains, one after another. It was scary. At that moment, I knew we had no choice but to drop everything and run for our lives.
I asked my wife and children to go ahead, then grabbed a poly bag and started stuffing it with whatever items I thought we would need. I had barely started, when I saw the roof starting to cave. It was my turn to run.
It’s been a year, and it feels as if we are still running.
I used to earn about Rs. 8,000 from the Chadethi temple. I even got a steady supply of fruits, flour, rice… Now, every morning I set off to nearby villages hoping to get work.
Sometimes there is the odd christening ceremony or last rites and I manage to earn something. But most days I return empty handed.
My wife Pushpa works in the fields and earns Rs. 100 per day. My children ask for TV with a dish network. They have no idea how I am managing to get food on the table?
(As told to Nihi Sharma Sahani)
Left with nothing emotionally, financially: Rameshwari Devi
Rameshwari Devi, 50, farm hand, Lamgondi near Guptkashi
I lost five family members in last June’s deluge — my 26-year-old son Ajay, three brothers-in-law and a nephew. Ajay was a photographer
We are left with nothing —emotionally and financially.
We lost all our earning members. My husband, who worked as a priest at Kedarnath, survived, but he does not want to go back to Kedarnath for work now after all the destruction he has seen.
After the tragedy, I started tilling the land we owned with the help of other women in the neighbourhood. But the yield is not much, just about enough for our meals.
Lamgondi is a village of Kedarnath priests just like the adjacent Devli Bhanigram, which since the tragedy has come to be known as the ‘village of widows’.
Lamgondi lost 25 residents to the flood, and Devil Bhanigram lost 55. What hurts is that all the media attention has been on Bhanigram and we were ignored.
My younger son, who is in college, is my only hope now. I know that I must keep living for him and also to provide strength to the other women members of my family who have lost their husbands and children.
We are bound together by our losses.
(As told to Abhinav Madhwal)
I lost property worth Rs. 80L, got Rs. 8.5L as relief: Ganesh Tiwari
Ganesh Tiwari, 30, hotelier, Deoli Bhanigram in Rudraprayag
On June 17, I was in Delhi when I received a call from one of my friends informing me that my 20-bedroom hotel near Birhi in Chamoli district had been washed away by a raging Alaknanda.
The news was too shocking for me. I couldn’t believe that I had lost everything I had worked so hard for. But I did not have much time to think about my loss of livelihood as a more pressing concern was clouding my mind.
My father had gone to see my uncle who runs a hotel in Kedarnath and there was no news of them.
I rushed to my village in Deoli Bhanigram in Rudraprayag district. But reaching it was difficult as most of the roads were either blocked or had been washed away.
After hitchhiking and walking for miles I finally managed to reach my village on June 19 only to hear horror stories of the devastating flood. The only solace was the news that my father and uncle were safe.
Today, I am broke. I had lost property worth Rs. 80 lakh and all I got as compensation was Rs. 8.55 lakh, out of which the bank deducted more than Rs. 7 lakh for the loan that I had incurred sometime back for the hotel’s construction.
(As told to Arvind Moudgil)