Hell in the Himalayas

Hell in the Himalayas

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Uttrakhand landslide

Uttrakhand landslide

Hundreds pay a heavy price in the abode of the gods for decades of ruination of the hills of Uttarakhand

Arnab Acharya travels around Dehradun, Haridwar, Hrishikesh, Son Prayag, Guptkashi, Gangotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath seeing the devastation all around and a part of the relief operations.

IT’s 5 AM. The Jolly Grant Airport looks like a missing person’s bureau. From the early hours, when security personnel were changing duty rounds, young and old men have been arriving in the airport. In their hands, they hold pictures. Some are carrying passport-size photographs of loved ones missing in the floods. Others are holding up group photos of relatives or friends on vacation. Many of those stranded in the hills are pilgrim groups from across the country, groups of 20, 30, and in some cases even up to 70 people – family members, friends, people from a neighbourhood, who had got together ro make the char dham yatra or pilgrimage to the four holy spots, Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath. Many of the pilgrims are elderly. This is not an Uttarakhand tragedy; it is a nationwide tragedy. For there are pilgrims from Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, everywhere.

A young man has come with his uncle from Akola in Maharashtra. His father and mother had saved up for the char dham yatra. They were barely metres away from Kedarnath when tragedy struck. Gangadhar Pandey, who managed to survive with his entire family, spoke of cars being washed away in a gush of water. He has been lucky. Some folks have heard by SMS from their relatives stranded in the hill towns and pilgrim centres. Those at home are relieved that they will be back soon.

Not many people want to talk about the dead, about what happens to the dead bodies, of how to account for people whose bodies have been washed away. The official toll stands at rroughly 5000, and is likely to touch another couple of thousands. Rescue is focused on evacuation and quick transport of those requiring medical help to hospitals. Many survivors have painful memories, of horrors unimaginable at pilgrimage sites. Survivors say the Kedarnath temple has suffered heavy damage, and its gateway is full of debris. They speak of houses and hotels in the vicinity submerged by slush and mudslides.

Since lots of roads have been washed away, rescue workers are trying to create temporary roads, bridges, and even small pathways to bring stranded people down. A hundred army jawans and officers have slithered down to Gaurikund with basic needs, food, medicines, etc. They will spend the next few days with those stranded there, keeping their morale up.

The return home hasn’t been immediate for many. But those who managed to get a sortie back to towns like Dehradun consider it a miracle that they have survived. Full recovery is going to be a long haul. The char dham yatra is likely to remain suspended for 3 years now. Even evacuation is likely to take a few more days. But evacuation of those in need of medical care will be completed immediately.uttrakhand Landslide

It’s a herculean task for the armed forces. Their choppers have flown sorties every minute of good weather; on the ground, personnel have worked round the clock, reaching cut-off areas, clearing slush. Air Commodore Issar, who is in charge at Jolly Grant Airport, says his choppers have done 50-60 sorties on good days, shuttling about five persons each time.

For the Hindu faithful, the char dham yatra has regained its true sense of awe. Ditto for the Sikh pilgrims to Hemkund Sahib. But it will also mean a return to faith with even greater strength, for having faced nature’s fury at its worst and survived miraculously.

First Person

‘Carfuls were washed away’

by Harminder Singh ‘Kaka’


It has been a night mare. When we set out from Chandigarh on June 12, the weather was fine and we were looking forward to our pilgrimage to Hemkund Sahib. Our families were travelling in two SUVs.

The drive uo to Rishikesh was uneventful. We halted for the night at Rudraprayag and set out for Joshimath the next day. At Joshimath we decided to go to Badrinath. We had barely driven for five km when it started raining so heavily that we turned back.

At Govindghat the gurudwara was full. Although it was raining the next day, we decided to walk the 13 km to Govinddham, and heard of landslides on the way. Bridges, we were told, had collapsed and the helipad was inundated. At Govinddham, the gurudwara was again full; hotel rooms cost Rs. 3,400 per room. Hemkund Sahib was just six km away and we had to make it on foot.

On June 15, it took us seven hours to reach Hemkund Sahib, as the path was slippery with mud, slush and rain. We were keen to return – I’ll never forget what I saw on the way back on June 17. There was water on the roads and bridges. I saw a parked helicopter being washed away, a seven-storied house crumbled like a pack of cards, a bridge collapsed soon after we crossed it. I saw hundreds of motor cycles and at least 50 cars, some of them with drivers inside, washed away.

We were lucky. Before Karnaprayag, we faced a terrible landslide, and heard the road we had driven through had been washed away. All roads were closed. On June 18, before we reached Rudraprayag, we faced a more frightening landslide. At Damdama Sahib, we heard the road to Srinagar was no longer there. We were advised to take a detour to Pauri Garhwal. A convoy of 15 vehicles made it safely to Kotdwar and a relief camp.

A shop owner sheltered us. On the 19th, we left for Haridwar, then reached Dehradun. We reached Chandigarh on Wednesday evening. Wahe Guru saved us.

(as told to Arnab Acharya)


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Somanjana Chatterjee

Somanjan Chatterjee is San Francisco based consulting editor