Survivors recall striking rarity of floods in winter

The first sign of trouble at NTPC Limited’s hydropower project in Tapovan on Sunday morning was a power failure that forced all machines to come to a halt
By Shiv Sunny, Joshimath
PUBLISHED ON FEB 08, 2021 11:50 PM IST
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The first sign of trouble at NTPC Limited’s hydropower project in Tapovan on Sunday morning was a power failure that forced all machines to come to a halt .

Exactly five minutes later, 27-year-old Manish Kumar, a workman at the site, heard people shout “baadh, baadh (flood, flood)”. Even as he was thinking about the improbability of a flood striking in winters, he noticed something that resembled dense smoke.

Kumar was standing right outside the entrance of a tunnel that would later emerge to be a trap for many of his friends and colleagues.

Without another thought, Kumar sprinted up the unpaved and slushy path that led uphill. He didn’t turn around until he was at a safe spot up the hill. Two others who were right behind him weren’t as lucky.

“Those who turned around to see the situation were washed away. People behind me were shouting for help, but they couldn’t have been helped,” said Kumar on Monday afternoon as he waited in hope for his roommate, Mahendra, to be rescued from the tunnel.

Sunday was supposed to be a holiday for most workers. Many of them would visit the Joshimath market, about 25 km away, to shop, eat , or simply walk around. But there were quite a few who were called in to put in an extra day of work. Kumar and Mahendra were among such workers.

While the workers at the hydropower plants along the stretch of the Dhauli Ganga river, anticipate trouble during the monsoons, they let their guard down in the winter months.

So, when the tragedy struck, none of was prepared.

“There was a group of workers sitting on an excavator and a truck right next to the dam. When the water and debris came gushing down, most were immediately swept away, but two of them managed to escape,” said Harinder Singh, a welder who watched the tragedy unfold from a safe distance on his day off.

“Both of them managed to catch hold of thick cables dangling near them. As the water rose up, the two men climbed higher and swung themselves onto the hill nearby. They both survived,” said Singh.

Then there were a few workers who tried to save themselves by holding each other to form chains.

“There were seven-eight of them holding on to each other. In about 30 seconds, each of them was swept away,” said Manish Pant, who too survived, thanks to his weekly off.

The Tapovan hydropower plant was totally destroyed. Many workers have left for their homes, while others have stayed on hoping to see their friends rescued or to help recover their bodies.

Those working that day included engineers overseeing operations, specialists and casual labourers hired for odd-jobs and to do the heavy lifting.

Downstream up the Tapovan site is Raini village where at least six residents are believed to have died. One of them was 76-year-old Amrita Devi, who was tending to her apple trees along with her grandson and daughter-in-law, Godambari Devi, near a 90-metre0long bridge when the tragedy struck.

“There was a very loud and scary noise. I turned around to see water and debris gushing towards us. It was as if the mountains were crumbling,” Godambari said.

As her 15-year-old son sprinted to safety, Godambari turned towards her mother-in-law to warn her. “I had just stretched out my hand towards her when the strong wind accompanying the flood threw me away. The next moment, I saw my mother-in-law covered by the debris from all sides,” she said.

By the time Godambari regained her senses, there was no sign of the hydropower plant towering above her moments ago. Also missing was the bridge that connected the Niti Valley, near the Indo-China border, to the rest of India. A pillar with a few broken rods at one end of the bridge was all that remained.

Raini village was the first point where the severity of the flash floods was first noticed on Sunday. “Since the river gets very narrow here, the impact was much higher,” said Shobha Rana, the village chief.

Residents of Raini village, which played an important role during the Chipko Movement in 1973, blamed the “ched-chaad” (meddling) with the environment for the tragedy. “When you dig all around and use gunpowder to shake the mountains, this is what happens. No one in these villages was infected by Coronavirus, but a man-made tragedy has left six villagers dead,” said Rajni Bhandari, the Chamoli Zilla Parishad president.

Devaki Devi, a homemaker, blamed the demolition of a Kali temple in the village during the construction of the power project last year for the flash floods. “We’ll have to rebuild the temple.”

While the flow of water to the river has returned to normal, it has completely changed the lay of the land.

“There was a boulder the size of a large truck in the river below,” said Birju Singh, a restaurant owner in Hailang, about 30 km downstream from Tapovan

“I can’t find it today.” .

The first sign of trouble at NTPC Limited’s hydropower project in Tapovan on Sunday morning was a power failure that forced all machines to come to a halt .

Exactly five minutes later, 27-year-old Manish Kumar, a workman at the site, heard people shout “baadh, baadh (flood, flood)”. Even as he was thinking about the improbability of a flood striking in winters, he noticed something that resembled dense smoke.

Kumar was standing right outside the entrance of a tunnel that would later emerge to be a trap for many of his friends and colleagues.

Without another thought, Kumar sprinted up the unpaved and slushy path that led uphill. He didn’t turn around until he was at a safe spot up the hill. Two others who were right behind him weren’t as lucky.

“Those who turned around to see the situation were washed away. People behind me were shouting for help, but they couldn’t have been helped,” said Kumar on Monday afternoon as he waited in hope for his roommate, Mahendra, to be rescued from the tunnel.

Sunday was supposed to be a holiday for most workers. Many of them would visit the Joshimath market, about 25 km away, to shop, eat , or simply walk around. But there were quite a few who were called in to put in an extra day of work. Kumar and Mahendra were among such workers.

While the workers at the hydropower plants along the stretch of the Dhauli Ganga river, anticipate trouble during the monsoons, they let their guard down in the winter months.

So, when the tragedy struck, none of was prepared.

“There was a group of workers sitting on an excavator and a truck right next to the dam. When the water and debris came gushing down, most were immediately swept away, but two of them managed to escape,” said Harinder Singh, a welder who watched the tragedy unfold from a safe distance on his day off.

“Both of them managed to catch hold of thick cables dangling near them. As the water rose up, the two men climbed higher and swung themselves onto the hill nearby. They both survived,” said Singh.

Then there were a few workers who tried to save themselves by holding each other to form chains.

“There were seven-eight of them holding on to each other. In about 30 seconds, each of them was swept away,” said Manish Pant, who too survived, thanks to his weekly off.

The Tapovan hydropower plant was totally destroyed. Many workers have left for their homes, while others have stayed on hoping to see their friends rescued or to help recover their bodies.

Those working that day included engineers overseeing operations, specialists and casual labourers hired for odd-jobs and to do the heavy lifting.

Downstream up the Tapovan site is Raini village where at least six residents are believed to have died. One of them was 76-year-old Amrita Devi, who was tending to her apple trees along with her grandson and daughter-in-law, Godambari Devi, near a 90-metre0long bridge when the tragedy struck.

“There was a very loud and scary noise. I turned around to see water and debris gushing towards us. It was as if the mountains were crumbling,” Godambari said.

As her 15-year-old son sprinted to safety, Godambari turned towards her mother-in-law to warn her. “I had just stretched out my hand towards her when the strong wind accompanying the flood threw me away. The next moment, I saw my mother-in-law covered by the debris from all sides,” she said.

By the time Godambari regained her senses, there was no sign of the hydropower plant towering above her moments ago. Also missing was the bridge that connected the Niti Valley, near the Indo-China border, to the rest of India. A pillar with a few broken rods at one end of the bridge was all that remained.

Raini village was the first point where the severity of the flash floods was first noticed on Sunday. “Since the river gets very narrow here, the impact was much higher,” said Shobha Rana, the village chief.

Residents of Raini village, which played an important role during the Chipko Movement in 1973, blamed the “ched-chaad” (meddling) with the environment for the tragedy. “When you dig all around and use gunpowder to shake the mountains, this is what happens. No one in these villages was infected by Coronavirus, but a man-made tragedy has left six villagers dead,” said Rajni Bhandari, the Chamoli Zilla Parishad president.

Devaki Devi, a homemaker, blamed the demolition of a Kali temple in the village during the construction of the power project last year for the flash floods. “We’ll have to rebuild the temple.”

While the flow of water to the river has returned to normal, it has completely changed the lay of the land.

“There was a boulder the size of a large truck in the river below,” said Birju Singh, a restaurant owner in Hailang, about 30 km downstream from Tapovan

“I can’t find it today.” .

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