Uttarakhand Catastrophe: An Eyewitness Account: The Horror, and the New Gods

Screenshot (66)Each yatri had to tell more than his or her story. Heaven it was once, which has turned into a burial ground for the living. With all the advancements in technology, all that glib talk of disaster management, the towering Indian conquering the world with his brilliance and high-end acumen, the fact is we failed our people in crisis. Ultimately the armed forces had to be deployed, who emerged as the new gods along with the RSS swayamsewaks, who worked characteristically in an unassuming, humble manner and saved hundreds of yatris while providing relief material to thousands in the most trying circumstances. The chopper crash killing 20 rescuers on board once again brought the horror of the situation prevailing in the Kedarnath region. Everyone saluted the brave-hearts who laid down their lives in the service of common Indians. They have emerged as the new gods of Kedarnath. The eye of Shiva that protects not destroys. Everything that shouldn’t have happened happened in Uttarakhand.

The monsoon was forecast a fortnight later, yet with the cloudburst the Chauri Bari Lake (also known as Gandhi Sarovar) sank into Kedar Valley burying thousands under the huge boulders and a wall of water that fell on pilgrims from above. That was on June 16. The first help reached them on the evening of June 19. The rush of pilgrims should have been a little less in the week closer to the rains, yet it was overwhelmingly crowded and the road to Kedarnath was a sea of people of all colors, countries, provinces and castes. As everyone knows, the monsoon often wreaks havoc in this part of the state, so the disaster management team should have been very, very alert. Its plans should have been in place with the manpower smartly distributed at all the vulnerable points so that in any eventuality the rescue teams are rushed to the spot without wasting a second.

None of the areas that were vulnerable and known as the most crowded places in peak season had any disaster relief teams stationed, no emergency plans were ever prepared, no disaster control room was designed to serve professionally. The district magistrate of the area should have been the first to sound the alert, and to caution pilgrims when the first news of the rains arrived. But he suddenly had a massive stroke at the most critical moment. In the shadow of a terrific calamity, the state government took five days to appoint a new DM. The most precious time to control and minimize the damage was thus lost. The incident also proved that in spite of being the place of highest reverence for Hindus, that brings more than 400 million faithful from across the globe every year, the area didn’t have a hospital to provide emergency treatment to people in distress. Even the district magistrate had to be rushed to Dehradun.

Think of the common citizens and pilgrims in such a situation. The nation, i.e., the political masters who take decisions to send help in such situations, and the media, that creates the atmosphere to have an appropriate response by society, should have been completely focused on the incident. But when the dying people needed urgent response in Kedarnath, politicians and the television channels were busy responding to Nitish-Modi-Advani-RSS issues and discussing the future of NDA post the JD-U’s secular divorce. Nothing mattered to them as important and as engaging as this political potpourri. TV channels relied on their junior-most reporters, sometimes stringers based in the state; they even used Facebook photos as exclusive “breaking news” clips. On the other hand a Pakistan election gets their chief editors, principal political editors and the highest-ranking senior analysts to go to Islamabad and report from there. Plus, the reports from the state were too noisy and haphazardly presented.

Screenshot (67)For Delhi station directors, Kedarnath didn’t deserve well-planned and topslotted reporting till the third day was over. In marketdriven stupid shows, the media in Delhi was saying, “Didn’t I tell you a hundred years before that unless you follow what I have been prescribing such calamities will occur” and giving a push to “green journalism” in a sordid drama of one-upmanship. And another show began a discussion on Rahul-Modi contributions to help Kedarnath victims. They were shameless enough to use a tragedy to earn more masala-driven TRPs. The TV channels hardly showed any sensitivity to the victims, their relatives and the local residents of Gupt-Kashi, Ukhimath, where almost every home lost a member. Weeping mothers, old men with hardly any energy to speak, wailing families and extreme shows dominated the screen.

The print media, on the contrary, was more sincere and sensitive to the situation. It all resulted in chaos. That chaos prolonged the dark night of death. That chaos caused the most excruciatingly painful, torturous five days for the thousands of pilgrims and perhaps increased the toll of the dead to an unimaginable count. Look at how our people, our citizens and our kith and kin died. Usha Soni’s husband died in her lap; he had dysentery and no anti-diarrhea medicine was available. Sohan Lal Vyas from Udaipur saw her son, daughter-in-law, sister’s son and sister getting buried in the water-wall that came with a huge gush of mud and pebbles. A mother was holding her little baby at Kedarnath, and to make secure that hold she tried to clutch the Nandi statue, but in that fraction of a second the water flow took away the wailing child. Khushboo Sahay of Varanasi was swept away with her husband and son; she was found two days later on the river bank, unconscious, by army men and revived.

The people on the 14-km long trek to Kedarnath, a huge sea of faithful, vanished into the watery assault that bodies lay scattered. Bodies of dead ponies and scores of other animals turned the area into the most horrendous and frightening sight. No one could even airdrop pamphlets with instructions, guidance and hope. No one conveyed to them, “We are coming. We shall bring all of you back home safely.” Porters and pony-wallahs assaulted the women. Pilgrims were taken to wrong, lonely routes to deprive them of their belongings. A porter took 16,000 rupees from a group of 10 from Patna, one of them Narendra Singh, a former chief manager of the State Bank of India, just to show them the correct path to Sonprayag. Fingers of dead bodies were cut to take out golden rings. Their pockets were emptied. An ochre-robed man was found with 80 lakh rupees and promptly arrested. The aircraft pressed into service to evacuate pilgrims were small, like three- to sixseated choppers. They had a refueling problem. The Director General of Police, Uttarakhand, told me and urged for help. I spoke to the Prime Minister to facilitate the ATF being airlifted to higher regions to save time and evacuate more people.

Screenshot (68)Thousands were stranded in Badrinath, Gangotri and Kedarnath regions. It was only after the death toll rose too high and the national media finally understood the seriousness of the catastrophe, that more choppers were brought in to make more sorties. June 22 and 23 were hectic for Kedarnath, but thousands of stranded pilgrims at Badrinath were told to wait, as “they were safe.” We left Gupt Kashi by road on the 24th morning early, at 4:30am. Hundreds of rescued pilgrims were with us, in vehicles including old and young women who had lost sons, daughters, fathers and parents and all family members. The tragic stories were endless.

Hardly 45 km ahead we faced huge landslides. In the entire 200 km stretch only one JCB road clearance machine was deployed. It was working at its peak speed, but still would have taken a day to clear the huge blockades if an army officer, Col. Anil Mehra, had not put into action two other JCBs lying idle in a village as they were “privately owned.” That’s the difference between a babu-government and the army man, everyone realized. A young kid, Shivam Bisht, was crying with pain. He had suffered major knee injury at Kedarnath and a bleeding sore in the stomach. By chance a doctor, who had come to Gupt Kashi from AIIMS to help pilgrims, was with our convoy. He performed first aid, spoke to the state’s Health Minister Surendra Singh Negi and he assured that once the boy reached Dehradun he would be provided with all medical help and also special financial assistance. The agony that began in Kedarnath was unending. Had they brought

Bhairav Ghati and beyond With the monsoon beginning they would need immediate help. They might not have had any food, shelter and warm clothes. Who was going to provide all that?And what about the dead still buried in Kedarnath area? The bodies had begun to decay and stink Army officers said unless they were cleared in the next two to all yatris from Kedarnath? Perhaps not. Some pilgrims were still reported to be in three days, a massive attack of infections might have engulfed the entire state. It was only on the fourth and the fifth day that some NDRF teams were sent to Guptkashi, Kedarghati, Gauri Kund and Gangotri areas. Doctors’ teams from the Indian Medical Association, AIIMS, Gangaram (New Delhi) too arrived at some places like Guptkashi. But the ordeal of the pilgrims at Gauri Kund, Ram Bari, and Jungle Chatti remained unspeakably painful. No shelter, no tents, out in the open without even a sheet of cloth to cover in that wintry, windy climate.

The shopkeepers, lodgeowners, were either dead or gone to safety. Everywhere it was a spine-chilling reign of fear, bad memories and hopelessness. People were defecating anywhere. Water filled the Mandakini River. No one was in a condition to hold the hands of the other. A chopper came but the minister took his two relatives and flew away. More sorties and more chaos. Thousands of people were stranded and clamoring to board and leave the hell. The “me-first” push of the crowd eager to reach a safer zone can’t be enveloped in hopelessness along with the Gayatri Parivar, local NGOs, the police association, college student unions, etc. It’s a tragedy that driven by hate and an ideological apartheid, the wonderful and selfless contribution of the RSS was completely ignored by the media, though the army men gave them a hug and cooperated with them.

The IAF and army described, it can only be felt. The only gods of succor and lifeproviding bliss were the men in olive green, the army, the ITBP personnel and the RSS swayamsevaks. Like angels they did everything that was possible in that situation. RSS youngsters were the first to reach Gauri Kund and provide food, water and solace to dejected, fatigued, yatris saved thousands of people. Crossing ferocious streams and rivers on a string of wire with old, young and the children clinging to them; like monkey cubs, they dawned on the scene as angels. But too many were to be rescued and too less was the number in proportion to the need and calamitystruck people.

The security personnel manning the airrescue had to have some rule — and one was to get the women, aged and ailing onboard first. It divided the families. Men and many times young women of the family were left behind. Seemingly young were asked to trek down up to Sonprayag from Gauri Kund,about 14 to 16 km, passing through a bit of Kedarnath, helpers, guides, members of temple committee, employees of local government offices was enveloped in grief. Almost every home in this region, particularly Gupt Kashi and Ukhimath, had lost someone in the family. They were desperately forest and negotiating a high hill. In Gangnani area,seemingly youthful ones had to trek approximately 75 km to reach safety.Though some said it was forgotten that after a painful stretch of five days, without food, even the young were half-dead.

The mental stress, deadly dance of agony, and dark fears of life coming slowly to a painful end sapped away all the energy that they once had.But they had no other alternative. The forces that were there provide safety were left with no other option.Still some were lucky to be airlifted and some had to walk down to Gupt Kashi. They were a picture of lifeless, darkened and blank-eyed moving bodies.They needed a shoulder and a few words of consolation.They needed a blanket of hope and warmth, the hug of a relation. Arelationship of being a fellow Indian. The people of Gupt Kashi did try to help them wonderfully. The city, a small buzzing town of pundits, ritual performers, shopkeepers of religious needs like dhoop, agarbattis, pooja samagri, lodge-owners of scouring the lists getting updated every few hours to find if their relatives’ names were there.

The town was closed down. No one had the courage to do business when the lights in their homes had died. Still they were the young and the old of Gupt Kashi, who came out to help forlorn pilgrims. They began a free langar, started missing persons search centre, 24-hour announcements were made of the list of arrived pilgrims and missing names. Medicines were provided free. The RSS volunteers were as usual doing their bit by providing food, blankets, shelter and guidance. They were the first to reach Gauri Kund, the point where the rescued pilgrims were brought from Jungle Chatti. Hungry, dejected, shocked with grief, fatigued and bewildered at being still alive after having spent six days amidst decaying corpses. More of everything was needed and everything available was just not sufficient.

The town never had the attention of governors sitting at the Dehradun secretariat. In spite of being the centre of gravity for all things happening at Kedarnath, the feeder city to pilgrimage for all purposes, it abysmally lacked in infrastructure. It had a very unreliable power supply, no solar alternative, no toilets, no city cleaning mechanism, and not even an iota of a disaster management centre. The government camps for rescued pilgrims had no power supply. When I visited in the evening, candles were being provided to some. Imagine people just arrived rescued from the jaws of death, and many of them had seen their father, mother, brother, sister, wife, husband dying before their eyes and they had to leave their dead bodies either unattended or had them immersed in the Mandakini without being able to even perform the last rites.

These were the people stationed in the clumsy, dark, and stable-like rooms without a proper toilet facility. A few toilets, in the school, were rendered useless due to paucity of water and non-functional flush. Fatigued and barely able to walk, pilgrims had to ease themselves in the open, on the outskirts of the camp,which was an inter-college building. And the worst was not yet over. They couldn’t speak to their relatives on phone — mobile phones were not working. BSNL was the only source of some hope, to bring cheer on the faces of their anxious relatives back home, but without power most couldn’t recharge their mobiles. Almost ninety nine percent had got their mobile phones soaked in rain water and besides, the other private mobile phone operators were simply mercilessly insensitive to the tragedy. “Happy to help” meant a hoax call for all of us.

They could have had a special arrangement to get the tower activated, facilitating communications to the pilgrims. But no one came forward to help them in the hour they needed it most. The first thing, after having survived the unspeakable ordeal, a pilgrim would have liked to do is to speak to his near and dear ones. But we Indians, the companies we own — Vodafone, Tata, Reliance – simply didn’t care. Nilesh Bharane, the effervescent superintendent of police manning the Gupt Kashi helipad did try the satellite phone to get the Sonis of Gujarat to speak with their Mumbai kin but ultimately had to go to a corner of the airfield where like voodoo magic, the signal, feeble though, came through and we saw the Sonis speaking to their folk through intermittent sobs.

They had lost their father at Kedarnath. With the instruments available, within the framework of the existing infrastructure and trained, untrained, manpower at hand, everyone did his best. If the RSS and BJP were there in the forefront of relief work, the Congress and many other organizations too worked at the ground level and I went to them, shook hands and appreciated their efforts unhesitatingly. Are they not Indians, and should we get into the murky blame game and one-upmanship because we do not belong to their ideology? That would be demeaning to our own noble intentions. We must salute the spirit of service in everyone who went there and did their bit -the police, local employees, district magistrates and officers drawn from various departments tried to help the army and the IAF. The Gauri Kund hospital had seen everybody gone to safety, however, there was one pathologist who refused to leave and single-handedly nursed the rescued yatris coming from Jungle Chatti area.

Screenshot (69)There are hundreds of such small stories of heroes who made a big difference. The IAF couple who flew sorties to bring back yatris, the Jha-Janamejay duo (DM and SP) in Tehri who got the crucial Mayala road opened to Gupt Kashi, which effectively became a lifeline to rescue work and outflow of yatris. In times of any huge crisis, people naturally panic and need immediate help. It’s not possible sometimes. Still, I sincerely feel, with no offence to the heroes and every one of those who worked to help, we were lacking in an infrastructure that could have responded to such a situation rapidly. At the end of the day, everything depended on the army and IAF. It was the same in 1940, in 1960, in 1970 and so on. There are lessons to be learnt. How not to politicize a relief operation, keep the communication channels on in the gravest of situations, have the disaster management team professionally stationed at every vulnerable place, regulate the inflow of yatris like Kailash and Amarnath Yatras, provide the best of infrastructure to these border areas visited by millions, train the civil servants to be polite and responsive to the common people, and a political leadership that loves to work and mingle with the masses.

Kedarnath catastrophe was the night that never ended. RSS Sarkaryavah (General Secretary) Bhayyaji Joshi and Sah Sarkaryavah (Jt General Secretary) Dr Krishna Gopal, came to Dehradun and travelled widely to assess the situation and provide a way for effective relief and rehabilitation. Bhayya ji Joshi had an aerial survey too courtesy the Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna and gave a long ranging pathway for reconstruction work. The biggest challenge is to help the children, thousands of them have become orphans and thousands have lost their schools.

There is a fear that many would lose their year of studies. I have committed to adopt 100 such children for their education and hostel stay. Similarly many others have come forward. But there is a great need to create a new paradigm for development and environmental protection. Ganga and Ganga-Bhakt should complement each other. While it is true that the Kedarnath catastrophe will remain as the most painful story of Uttrakhand ever, it will also be remembered for the thousands of those helping hands spontaneously raised. The people of the state, the jawans of the forces and para-military arms, the local and the national level NGOs, media persons, everyone contributed enormously. For four days we were in Gupt Kashi, Son Prayag and then trekked up to Gauri Kund passing through the heavily devastated areas. It was like passing through a bad dream, a world enveloped in excruciating pain, indescribable agony and the hurt that  made each yatri look again and again backward towards Ram Bari and Kedarnath. Maybe their dearest ones would come rushing to them and yell, “Hey ma, I was saved, I am

alive, I am with you once again…. “While Delhi was busy in the humdrum of political one-upmanship and media searching frantically for new TRP enhancer noises, the stars of the rescue operation in Uttarakhand recreated a Ganga of faith and emotions. The heroes who laid their lives while rescuing the people have become our new stars. The fauji is not a paid employee. He is a missionary warrior and a first citizen who protects the nation and is happily ready to sacrifice his life for that. That’s what makes him different and that’s why he gets so much public respect. He is the only one about whom our oldest scriptures have mentioned with highest honor, he attains martyrdom, a “veer gati”, and goes to the Surya Lok, the heavens of the thousand Suns, according to the Bhagwad Geeta. The men in uniform who risked their lives, gave their families a hundred assurances to come back, and while bringing the hopeless, dejected, half dead yatris from Kedarnath, laid down their lives.

Screenshot (70)They broke the promise given to their family but kept the word given to Mother India- to live and die in the line of duty. The jawans on the ground, whatever uniform they wore, olive green or khaki, army, naval commandoes, IAF, NRDF, ITBP and the state police were miracle personified. The old and the kids and the youngsters, completely emasculated like a soaked paper-ball squeezed, came back to life from the jaws of death when the hands of jawans lifted their bodies in their arms, and weak unsure yatris clung to them, locking around their chests. It was an awesome feat.

The air warriors, took up the challenge of the skies, tamed the bad weather, adjusted in the most painful absence of any infrastructure for the disaster response, with no air control towers beyond Dehradun, no ATF storage mechanism in uphill border region, very clumsy and congested parking bay for the choppers, everything required was fixed up in a record time and the air warriors flew to bring back life and hope for the thousands of families. The rescued yatris’ feet were swollen, faces black with fatigue, six days without food, clothes torn and wet and soiled. Eyes blank and still. Think of that and then think someone suddenly reaching out to say, “Come on Ma, the chopper is waiting to take you back home.” That unbelievable moment of hope was frozen on their faces. The moment of life became unbelievably a magical drop of life and the jawans who carried the yatris in their arms were the heroes, the new gods, who were bathed with blessings sweetened with the salty tears.

The stars who gave the rays of life to the hopelessly distraught people, those pilots and commandoes and the NDRF bravehearts who defeated death and challenged the deadly roars of an angry nature’s fury and tamed the mountains they became our new gods of Kedar Khand. To remember them is like cruising slowly with the stars. Their memory is like the Ganga flowing amidst us with twinkling diyas floating in it. Or like the stargazers walk nimble footed on a mountainous trek wearing a silence of the praying gods. Now how do we move ahead? The situation demands a new paradigm of work culture and a fresh, new approach to build a disaster response system. I spoke to the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and later President Shri Pranab Mukherjee.


■ About the author
Shri Tarun Vijay is currently a Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) and a national spokesperson for BJP, India. He is also member of
Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs,
Parliamentary Group on India China Friendship, and Hon. Director, Dr. Shyama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation (Centre for Civilization Values and Policy Research).
For more rescue and relief pictures, please visit tarun-vijay.blogspot.in/2013/06/why-look-to-skies-angels-are-hererss

Source: Hindu Vishwa