Two years of Chamoli tragedy: Known for Chipko movement, Raini village still awaits rehabilitation
In July 2021, a team of geologists in their report to the district magistrate had declared the village “inhabitable”.
Raini village in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district from where the Chipko movement started in 1973 to protect and conserve trees and which bore the brunt of a glacial lake outburst flood in February 2021, leaving over 200 dead, is “sinking” and yet awaiting rehabilitation even after two years of tragedy.
In July 2021, a team of geologists in their report to the district magistrate had declared the village “inhabitable”. The report was submitted on the account of the flash floods that rocked the Raini village on February 7,2021 during which two under-construction hydel power projects — Rishi Ganga and NTPC’s Tapovan Dam — were damaged.
The village whose existence was brought on a global map because of its resident Gaura Devi, one of the founding members of the Chipko movement, which became a rallying point for non-violent environmental movements in India and even attracted international attention was battered due to the flash floods.
Water flowed over the dams, with muck and debris also entering dam tunnels. Few days after the tragedy, water again accumulated in Rishiganga river, following which a state disaster response force (SDRF) was sent to the area. Subsequently, a siren-based early-warning water-level sensor system was set up for a sudden surge in Rishiganga waters in Raini village.
Raini was again hit by floods following incessant rain between June 13 and 17 and 14 houses in village’s lower part were destroyed. A stretch of the Joshimath-Malari highway, which connects to the international border and is strategically important, also caved in. After the June floods, the Chamoli district administration had asked the 14 families to temporarily shift to a school in Chaklata village, located downhill.
In October 2021, houses and fields located on the slope, which was already weakened by flash floods, developed cracks on the walls and land respectively.
72-year-old Kalawati Devi, who continues to reside in the Raini village and was also a part of the Chipko movement, is pained at the government’s apathy towards the village.
“Our village will be washed away if a similar disaster like February 2021 hits it. Torrential rains give us nightmares. Ironically, the village that made the world conscious about environmental protection, is facing government’s negligence,” Devi said, while recalling the 2021 disaster.
Talking about the morning of February 7 in 2021, Devi who was working in her field suddenly heard a strange noise. “I heard a horrific noise. Within seconds, I saw the gushing waters of the broken glacier coming down the river,” she said.
“After the 2021 tragedy, large cracks appeared on the walls of our houses and in the fields, which is the major source of our livelihood. We can’t grow vegetables now. The village is sinking. They (authorities) have done very little for our rehabilitation,” she added.
“Earlier, we used to drink Rishiganga’s water. After all these projects came into the region, a tank was installed on the upside of the hill above the village. It gets damaged during rains due to the falling of trees. Also, it is difficult for aged people to climb to such a height to collect water,” she said.
Talking about Gaura Devi, another resident, Dooka Devi, who is in her late 80s, said, “She was a firebrand leader... her one call mobilized women in large numbers from nearby areas to save the environment. It’s sad that the people of her village are feeling helpless. We have been waiting for rehabilitation for two years. Some families left in search of jobs, some left in fear after the tragedy.”
Raini village is divided by Rishiganga. One side is called Pala Raini and the other side Wala Raini. Gaura Devi was born on Pala side in 1925 but came to live on the Wala side later.
Yashoda Devi (70), who lives on Pala side, was left in tears when asked about the 2021 tragedy. Devi lost her 32-year-old son Yashpal in the tragedy. As the flash floods hit the village, Yashpal was standing near the river banks while their sheep were grazing in the field. Unable to run on time, the gushing waters swept him away.
Jhooti Devi, another woman from the village who took part in the Chipko movement, said, “Young people can leave the village and shift to towns, but where will we go? We can only live in fear.” The statue of the legendary Gaura Devi was also removed from Raini village as it was damaged in the tragedy. After being shifted to a safer location in Joshimath, it was brought back and installed in a newly built park in the village.
Jhooti Devi, however, said, “The place where Gaura Devi’s statue is installed is so unclean. If they can’t take care of it, what can we expect from them (authorities)? Even the dress of statues of women hugging the trees is different from our traditional dress.”
Talking about the “fragile ecology”, Raini village pradhan Bhawan Singh said, “When it rains heavily, it brings back the memories. Every time it rains, the cracks get wider as we live in a fragile ecology. The river bank has been eroded and the river is moving closer to village with every incident. There have been reports of land subsidence in the entire Niti Valley since the 2021 tragedy.”
Meanwhile, a senior official from the Chamoli district administration on anonymity said: “The report submitted by the geologists stated that the village is facing serious slope stability problems where the whole area is affected by active subsidence whereas the downslope is affected by toe erosion.” The official said that the geologists had advised “to rehabilitate Raini to a safer location” since there been active slope movement in the area, resulting in cracks in many houses.
“When Uttarakhand became a separate state in 2000, the government allowed a hydroelectric project to be built on Rishiganga, right below our village. By 2005, the dam construction led to widespread deforestation in the area, disturbing its fragile ecology,”Raini village pradhan said.
He claimed, “Our houses started developing cracks due to construction activities .Since then, we have been demanding rehabilitation. But, no one has paid heed and after the 2021 tragedy, things turned worse.”
Gaura Devi’s son Chandra Singh said, “If they would assault nature, it will avenge. The tragedies in this region, over the years, are a testament”.
“I got a cheque of ₹5 lakh from chief minister under the Uttarakhand Ratna award which was conferred upon my mother in 2016. I will spend that money on the village. We will build a museum for my mother to remind everyone of her struggle to save the environment,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Chamoli district administration said there has been a delay in the rehabilitation of the village due to the “limited land availability”.
District disaster management officer NK Joshi said: “There are around 50 families living in Raini. We had earlier identified two nearby areas — Subhai and Dhaak villages — for the rehabilitation. However, the plan couldn’t materialise due to limited availability of land.”
Pradhan Bhawan Singh, however, said, “The Subhai residents are putting up resistance against the rehabilitation of our residents there. They have protested to the administration that if additional families from Raini will be shifted here, it will put pressure on their limited resources like land for grazing and potable water.”
Prof YP Sundriyal, head of department, geology, Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University, said, “They should be rehabilitated as early as possible since the area falls in the fragile region and has reported land subsidence. The river flows just below the village and it stands on the loose material. It’s risky.”
In July 2021, the Uttarakhand high court had dismissed a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by five residents of Raini village, seeking revocation of forest and environmental clearances to Rishiganga and Tapovan-Vishnu Gad Hydropower projects and seeking rehabilitation of Raini Village. The HC also imposed a ₹ 10,000 fine on each petitioner.
Even two years before Chamoli tragedy, Raini villagers had also raised concerns before the high court. Following their PIL in 2019, HC had directed the state government to check the matter. Raini residents, however, alleged nothing happened despite the HC directions.
Sangram Singh, one of the petitioners and a villager of Jugju which is close to NTPC’s constructions for hydropower project, said, “Blasts are conducted for construction of an underground tunnel for the project and the nearby villages are sinking because of it. We have been fighting against these projects”.
“They (authorities) say they will take action, and will send geologists to conduct a survey but to no avail. When it rains, we have to move to the cave since landslides happen and boulders fall,” he said. Other petitioners are Gaura Devi’s grandson Sohan Singh, pradhan Bhawan Singh, Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti convener Atul Sati and Kamal Raturi.
“We had moved the high court against the twin hydropower projects and rehabilitation of the Raini village. It’s sad that our fight for the environment met with disappointment,” he said.
The matter is sub judice in Supreme Court now, he added.
When asked about long pending rehabilitation from Raini, he said: “The village is situated on a sliding slope and falls in the buffer zone of Nanda Devi national park. There is a constant threat to the village. It seems the authorities don’t care about our lives.”
In the 2021 tragedy, officially, at least 204 deaths were reported. According to an official at Chamoli district disaster management office, 92 bodies and 38 body parts have been recovered by them till date.
As the land subsidence crisis continues in Joshimath, around 20 km from Raini village, Joshimath residents say the crisis in the town is connected to the 2021 tragedy.
“It is after the 2021 flood, that the cracks started appearing in people’s homes in Joshimath,” said Atul Sati.
Meanwhile, on Alaknanda and its tributaries, which flow through Chamoli, Rudraprayag, and Pauri Garhwal districts, several dams have been set up. Some of the main main hydel power projects (HEP) on Alaknanda and its tributaries include Rishiganga HEP, Vishnuprayag HEP (400 MW) near Joshimath, Peepal Koti HEP (444 MW) near Peepal Koti, Srinagar HEP (330 MW) and Tapovan Vishnugad HEP (520 MW).