At Rishikesh station, 50 pilgrims from the villages of Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh (MP) are wondering whether they should proceed towards the Badrinath shrine in Uttarakhand. They’ve just received news about landslides in the region. Their worries are not unfounded. On July 24, boulders fell on a mini bus headed to Badrinath and killed two people, bringing back memories of last year’s disaster which killed 5,000 pilgrims. This year, the incessant rains forced the state government to suspend the Char Dham pilgrimage, between July 16 and July 26.
The group from MP had been to Gangotri and Yamnotri, and was planning to visit the Badrinath and Kedarnath shrines. But the pilgrimage had already had its share of frightening moments: At Gangotri, their bus narrowly missed falling into the Ganga. “The driver managed to save us all,” says the youngest in the contingent, Kanchan Baghel (15). Kunwar Singh Chauhan, who has been driving along the Char Dham pilgrimage circuit for 17 years, said the condition of the roads had worsened since last year and that there were no roads beyond the town of Uttarkashi. “It felt as I was driving over debris and boulders,” he said.
Leaving it to fate
Last June’s flashfloods were one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory. Unofficial figures suggest that more than 10,000 people died.
While horror stories from 2013 still haunt visitors, many insist that faith comes first. Chittam R Mugam (55), a pilgrim from Andhra Pradesh said he wanted to visit to Badrinath despite the danger.
“We heard of several incidents last year. But we believe that if God wants us alive, then we will make it,” said Mugam, who works as a railway coolie.
Not everyone is as fatalistic. Madhya Pradesh native BK Pathan, who conducts tours along the Char Dham circuit, said he had made a mistake by believing the authorities had things under control this time.
“This is my sixth trip to Uttarakhand, and it has been the most horrifying one. Stones have been falling on our vehicles, and the state machinery claims the yatra route is safe!” he said as he tried to convince his group to suspend the pilgrimage.
Fewer pilgrims are visiting Char Dham this year: the figure for 2014 stands at one lakh pilgrims, down from 30 lakh who visited during the season in previous years. Besides the Char Dham pilgrimage, the Hemkunt Sahib yatra for Sikhs and the Kailash Mansarovar pilgrimage are annual events that attract a sizeable number of pilgrims to the state.
Landslides and natural disasters are not new to Uttarakhand. The monsoons wreak havoc on the hill state every year. As a result, groups of pilgrims on the Char Dham route have been stranded at various spots this year too. This despite the government’s claims of having a “back-up plan”.
Thankfully, though, the delays have only been for a few hours at a stretch. Chief minister Harish Rawat, who also heads the Disaster Management and Mitigation portfolio, said it would be a while before the roads returned to what they were before the 2013 disaster. Despite the slow pace of reconstruction, Rawat said his government was considering allowing the pilgrimage even during the winter.
Coping with calamities by ignoring them
Uttarakhand is possibly the first state to have a separate Disaster Management and Mitigation Centre (DMMC) under the command of the Disaster Management Department. The department and the DMMC are expected to work in sync in disaster situations and to train locals.
However, ever since the state of Uttarakhand was carved out from Uttar Pradesh in 2000, disaster management has been a neglected subject even though the state has faced a number of natural calamities in quick succession. In a 2012 report, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) had reprimanded the state government for not doing enough on the ground: “The state government has yet to frame the guidelines, policies and rules as envisaged in the Disaster Management Act, 2005. Further, the State Disaster Management Authority is virtually non-functional… The government has also failed to ensure the incorporation of disaster prevention into the development process as envisaged in the act.” The CAG has also pointed out that there is a strong need for more trauma centres in the state.
The road ahead
According to the report of the department of Disaster Management, 233 villages are located in the disaster prone area. 100 of these need immediate relocation. Last year, in Chamoli district’s Pindar valley, 157 houses were destroyed, 93 were severely damaged and 406 were partially damaged. But a year after the disaster, villagers are still forced to live under threat. State officials insist the current focus is on strengthening the team to tackle future disasters, and on installing mechanisms such as satellite phones for connectivity.
The state cabinet has agreed to strengthen the numbers of the disaster response force, which will now have six companies. Two of them will be deployed at Kumaon and Garhwal for manning disaster operations. Still, the scene on the ground doesn’t seem very reassuring with pilgrims often fearing that they will meet their maker much earlier than expected.