Rain havoc

Print edition : September 02, 2016
A timely reminder of the tragedy that struck Uttarakhand in 2013 and what compounded a natural disaster and made it so serious.

HEAVY rain in June is not unusual in Uttarakhand. But the June of 2013 was different. The skies opened up and rivers breached their banks, sweeping away everything in their path. Towns and villages disappeared, rocks came crashing down, countless lives were lost and many people lost homes and livelihoods.

The scale of the destruction became known only in the morning of June 17, three days after torrential rains started on June 13, when a local TV reporter scrambled onto the helicopter of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Ramesh Pokhriyal, who was surveying the area, and reported on the calamity. The first video grabs left everyone speechless. Kedarnath, the temple town, was destroyed, the shrine was flooded, and there was nothing in sight except what looked like corpses. The images were deliberately blurred to spare people the horror. Until then, it was thought to be just another spell of heavy rain that Uttarakhand gets every year.

The calamity came at the peak of season of religious tourism centred around Kedarnath, which magnified the scale of the disaster. Thousands of pilgrims were stuck in the region on their way to the Kedarnath shrine. Once the news was out, TV channels continuously aired images of the disaster.

But after days of ceaseless reporting, the tragedy gradually lost its poignancy, and the channels moved on to other stories. Three years later, people in the region are still struggling to rebuild their lives. Rage of the River, written by the journalist Hridayesh Joshi of NDTV, who covered the tragedy extensively, comes as a timely reminder. It also exposes how the relief and rehabilitation work was inadequate. The book documents heroic efforts by people trapped by the calamity to help others and by helicopter pilots who risked their lives to airlift victims from the disaster zone.

The book records the fact that this was not the first time that such a tragedy had struck the hill State. Such calamities have been happening with disturbing regularity since the early 19th century. Yet the government turned out to be grossly unprepared to handle the disaster. The meticulous detailing of the history of such calamities in the hills shows up how government planning fails to take into account the fragile ecosystem of the area. The mad rush for laying roads, building hotels and other tourism infrastructure, power projects, and illegal encroachments on land have made the hills more vulnerable than ever. Successive governments have ignored repeated warnings by environmental activists.

The graphic accounts of the calamity by survivors, many of whom lost loved ones, livelihoods and all their savings, show how serious the consequences of short-sighted policies can be. In the chapter titled “Who Dug This Grave”, Joshi talks about an angry old man who bluntly tells his team that disasters like this hit the hills every year and people died every year, but just because this time outsiders from Delhi and Mumbai were killed, the national media were taking an interest.

The book has been translated from Hindi by Vandana R. Singh. It has a good collection of pictures: the aerial view of the devastation, the rescue operation, and the temple before and after the destruction. In his concluding remarks, the writer says: “We need to arise from our stupor.... Time is running out. Can we begin the task of course correction immediately before talking about our noble plans of adaptation, mitigation and disaster management?”

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