A raucous crowd of 120 young boys lent a boisterous touch to the solemn rituals that marked the opening of Kedarnath temple on Sunday. No one would have guessed that the boys - dressed in bright, festive garments, bearing drums and loudly chanting Bum Bole, Har Har Mahadev – have been severely affected by the flash floods and mudslides that devastated the temple a year ago. Some had been caught in the floods, spending days out in the open rain and cold, seeing people die all around them; while some had seen a father or a brother die in the calamity.
It wasn't easy for the boys to go to Kedarnath again, the scene of so much personal loss, the wounds of which had barely had time to heal. Anup Singh, whose father was an employee of the water department on duty in Kedarnath at the time and whose body was never found, had to fight with his mother to make the trip. "She was very afraid," he says. "Anup threatened her by saying that if she didn't allow him to go, he would run away from this camp," said ex-NSG-commando Laxman.
Col Ajay Kothiyal, principal of Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), started an initiative to train young victims of the 2013 Uttarakhand floods so that they can get jobs in the army. He runs three centres, the largest of which is at Vidyapeeth, a dilapidated school near Kalimath, around 50km from the shrine. Here, under Laxman, the boys do PT classes on an open field on the river bank, build their muscles with improvised dumbbells made of bricks and climb ropes hung from trees.
Kailash Batawal, who lost his brother in the tragedy, says, "Laxman Sir told us that if we want to be in the army, we must conquer fear, and the only way to do that was to go back. If we did not, the fear would never go away. Besides, we also wanted Kedar baba's blessings for our new life."
Around 10 months ago, when Col Kothiyal was posted in Uttarkashi, he started the initiative. "Many people would ask me for advice on getting their sons a job in the army. After the disaster, I toured a lot of the affected villages and found that there were many boys, who either ran the mules, worked in the hotels and lodges, and were associated with the yatra, who had nothing to do. This was a way of combining the two," Col Kothiyal told dna.
He funds the three training centres with the Rs3 lakh he gets from the state government as a gallantry-award winning army officer and Rs1.5 lakh he gets from the central government. "I am not married, so I don't have any responsibilities and about Rs55,000 from my monthly salary goes to provide food, sleeping bags, some books and other necessities for the boys," said the officer, who has been approached by NGOs with offers to help. But he is determined to go it alone with his charity.
Pankaj Rawat, 18, who lost his father and brother in Rambada, where the family had a shop and then scrambled all over the mountains in the torrential rain before being rescued by the army, says he wants to be part of the Rmed forced. "I want to learn the skills to save people," he says.