Crumbling hills ground report: A week later, families count the cost

ByNeeraj Santoshi and Ankur Sharma, Ramgarh (nainital)
Oct 27, 2021 04:34 AM IST

A week after record rains took the lives of 77 people in two days, October 18 and 19, HT travelled to the inner reaches of Nainital district that bore the brunt of the devastation, and found families unable to come to terms with their grief

A week has passed, but Surinder Singh Chauhan, 47, can still hear the screams of his children. At 3:30am, the earth began to tremble, the low thuds of boulders and dirt grew louder, then a landslide crushed one of the two rooms in his modest house near Nainital town. It was the room where his 17-year-old son, and 23-year-old daughter slept. He heard his son first, crying out in pain. By then, people had collected around his home, and when they dug through the rubble, they found him half buried in the earth, his arms extended towards them. The rain and the gushing water were incessant, and pulling him out impossible. Two hours later, Abhishek Chauhan went quiet. Until then, the desperate father had already given up on his daughter, in the belief that she had been washed away. But at 6:30 in the morning, he heard his daughter’s feeble voice. She kept asking to be pulled out, asking her parents to find a way to remove the concrete slab that was crushing her neck. They told her to be brave, that help was on its way. Four hours later, Ritika Chauhan went quiet too. In five hours, both his children were dead.

Nainital is already one of the most landslide-prone areas in the state. (HT Photos)
Nainital is already one of the most landslide-prone areas in the state. (HT Photos)

A week after record rains took the lives of 77 people in two days, October 18 and 19, HT travelled to the inner reaches of Nainital district that bore the brunt of the devastation, and found families unable to come to terms with their grief, rescue teams still struggling with the magnitude of the challenge in front of them, and those that lived to tell the tale in government shelters, worried that their damaged homes will collapse any moment.

Chauhan’s children are among 35 killed in rain-related incidents in Nainital in the two days when parts of the district received the most rain in the past 124 years. Nainital’s Mukteshwar weather station reported 340.8mm rainfall in 24 hours between 8.30am on October 18 and 8.30am on October 19, the highest since the weather station was set up in 1897. Between October 1 and 20, Nainital district reported 406.2mm rainfall against an average of 41.4mm, recording 881% excess rainfall in this period.

Chauhan sells flowers near the Kainchi Dham shrine in Nainital district, 18km away from the district headquarters, 4,500 feet above sea level. His home is a thin long rectangle, two rooms and a kitchen, and the Kshipra river flows nearby. When the flood hit, the geography made it a prison. “There was no electricity and no signal. We couldn’t call anyone. Approach roads on both sides, from Nainital and from Almora, were blocked with landslides. All we could do was call some young people from nearby for help,” he said. His son was in school, and just a few days before her death, Ritika had found work in a private company. “She was so happy. My whole life, I have sold flowers. And now I have had to put flowers on the bodies of my children. It should have been the other way round,” said Chauhan, unable to hold back his tears.

Apart from the 77 killed, five people are missing and 24 injured; and 224 houses were damaged, state government officials said on Tuesday evening. Of the dead, 35 are from Nainital district, 11 from Champawat, 10 from Uttarkashi, six from Almora, six from Bageshwar, three each from Pauri and Pithoragarh, two from Udham Singh Nagar, and one from Chamoli district.

What led to the calamity

Nainital is already one of the most landslide-prone areas in the state. In 1880, 151 people were killed in a major landslide in Nainital’s Sher Ka Danda area and such disasters have occurred in 1867, 1880, 1893, 1898, 1924, 1989, 1998, 2018, and 2021. Experts have long maintained that a seismic fault-line runs beneath the lake, which results in stress, shearing and pulverising of the rock formations in lake area, making the whole area vulnerable to major geological disturbances such as landslides.

But two other factors have contributed to the damage: the climate crisis, and unchecked development and despoliation of the hillsides. The first has increased the possibility and frequency of extreme weather events (such as the rains many districts in Uttarakhand received on October 18 and 19). The second, evident in the mushrooming of holiday homes for the wealthy from the cities, the cutting of hillsides for resorts, and the development of resorts right next to rivers and streams has increased the chances of landslides and floods.

Around 35km away from the Chauhan home, in the Chopra village of Jeolikote, as night fell on October 18, Jeevan Chandra, 45, knew something was wrong. His brother, Manoj Kumar, worked at a hotel less than 4km away in Jeolikote, among the many hotels that have begun to dot the mountainside in the village. He called him repeatedly, but there was no response. He called his hotel manager, who said Manoj had left at 5:30pm. The village was worried, and at night, 30 people set off with torches. “I had a bad feeling in my gut. With our torches, we started looking for him on the approach road. There was a landslide and we kept sifting through the rubble, but to no avail. The next day, we found his bike near a stream which had torn through the road with big boulders nearly 800m from our house. My neighbours went down and found his body in the stream at 11 am on October 19,” Chandra said.

Heavy damage

Across Nainital district, the sight of streams in spate, bearing heavy rocks tearing through roads or homes became common across those two days. In Ramgarh, 34km away from Nainital town, entire roads caved in under the weight of boulders. A walk-through a week later showed that entire stretches of road have vanished. At other points, water pipes jut out, and naked electricity poles and wires are bent or mangled. The new challenges make even a journey by foot arduous.

Nowhere is this more evident in the 7km road to the hamlet of Sakuna, from the Ramgarh main road. No motor vehicles can now access the area, and HT reached the village, where nine people died in one home, on foot, trekking through parts of the mountainside. At the village on Saturday, there were 20 NDRF personnel, as well as others from the SDRF, conducting a search for two missing bodies.

Janardhan Joshi, who lives nearby, said that at 5:30am on October 19, the only surviving labourer arrived at his home, injured and needing attention. “He said they were ten people, nine labourers and one contractor, sleeping in the room when a flood with big boulders came crashing into the house they lived in together. He was sleeping on the extreme left and somehow managed to escape.”

Rajesh Kumar Singh, heading the NDRF team at the site, said that with the damaged approach roads to Sakuna, his team was only able to reach the village at 11am on September 20, using ropes and trekking equipment over multiple stretches. “When we reached, we found boulders as large as 14ft by 5ft inside the mangled house. An arm was protruding from beneath the big boulder. There were already two JCBs (earthmovers) working near the home but no other vehicles could come there. We had no cutters. So we used these JCB machines, lifted the boulders with great difficulty, and retrieved bodies from under them.”

Then some locals found some welding machines and a generator provided by locals. “On October 21, we retrieved two more bodies. Big boulders, mangled concrete and fast-flowing water made search operations difficult and challenging. On October 21, we retrieved three more bodies, one downstream nearly 1.5km away from the site. Then we sent a team of seven people downstream but couldn’t find the remaining two missing people.”

Rescue continues

With the area cut off, the search and rescue operations, on their fourth day when HT visited the spot on October 23 have been aided by enterprising locals, helping with food and water. Bittu Rawat, a resident of Sakuna, has been among those helping NDRF and SDRF personnel with rice and curry from his home every day. “They are working so hard in the most difficult conditions to hunt for these bodies . I think it is my moral duty to help with what I can.”

The village has had no electricity since the 18th, and the one generator provided by locals to NDRF and SDRF for rescue is also the only way for everyone to charge their phones. Lal Singh Bisht, head constable and leader of the SDRF rescue team working in the area said it has been one of the most challenging search missions the team has carried out. “With road links broken and poor mobile connectivity, locating and reaching the hamlets on steep hillsides in the first place was the biggest challenge. We are now searching in the 15km stretch of the river downstream to find the remaining two bodies. ” The NDRF team left the Sakuna area on Monday, while SDRF personnel are continuing with the search.

In the aftermath of the disaster, across villages in the area, the future of residents and their homes hang in balance, quite literally. Homes are cracked or are located perilously close to sites that flooded over or where entire slopes have vanished. HT found many villagers trying to build reinforcing walls or removing the big boulders themselves, despite the danger to their own lives. With help still unable to reach them, there are few options. “All the houses that have developed cracks on steep slopes have become houses of death and are unliveable. We don’t what to do with them,” Deepak Bisht from Kainchi Dham said.

In Hari Nagar, just on the outskirts of Nainital town, at least 65 families now call the local government school compound, and a neighbouring dharamshala, home. They once lived above the Baliyanala mountainside, which has since witnessed multiple landslides. Looking out towards his home in the distance, Harish Chand sits in the compound of the government school on Saturday. One classroom holds three families. There is no electricity inside, and there is just one functional toilet in the entire school. “We don’t know when our houses will disappear with the landslides. We keep checking on them from here. But we also fear going back,” he said.

Dhan Singh Rawat, minister for disaster management, acknowledged that heavy rains have caused wide scale damage to roads, houses, bridges and public infrastructure in general, apart from the loss of lives. “Kumaon, especially Nanital, has witnessed the highest rainfall in last 124 years. This has wreaked havoc. Our priority right now is to provide compensation to people affected and resume road connectivity, water supply and electricity in the affected areas as soon as possible.”

Compensation enhanced

Rawat said that the compensation amount to the affected has been increased. “A high power committee has been formed for monitoring of relief and reconstruction work by the chief minister. The compensation to families whose houses have been fully damaged has been increased from 95,000 in plains and 1,01,900 in hilly areas to 1.5 lakh per house. Those whose pucca houses have been damaged partially will be now provided 7,500 instead of 5,200. In the case of partially damaged Kachha houses, the compensation has been increased from 3,200 to 5,000. Patwaris have been directed to ensure survey and distribution of compensation as soon as possible.”

From the home on the unstable hill, Harish Chand’s wife Shanti Devi has only brought a few utensils from the kitchen. “We can’t live like this here for too long,” she said. “Government should do something for us, before it is too late.”

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