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Heroes 2013: How they fought a Himalayan tragedy

Friday, 20 December 2013 - 12:13pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

On November 28 evening, a 50-year-old clean shaven man boarded a 13-seater tempo travelling from Guptkashi to Sonprayag in Uttarakhand. To everyone’s surprise, he greeted everyone inside.

He was a rich man, the owner of a chain of hotels and, even a few months ago, would not answer or even smile back when anyone greeted him. “The disaster has made people humble once again,” said Manwar Singh Rawat, the driver of the tempo traveller. The hotelier was one of those who survived the devastating Uttarakhand cloudburst in June this year. He saw people, buildings, vehicles and hopes drowning in the Mandakani and would have died too inside one of his hotels, but the river changed course just a few metres away. “Two of his hotels and three shops were washed away; the others are without business,” adds Rawat. He visits his empty hotels almost everyday until now. Six months after one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory, the Uttarakhand government and its disaster management officials have not been able to restore normal life. “Many villages are still disconnected and people transport ration on mules trekking through arduous mountains routes in the absence of roads,” says Mahender Semwal of Sonprayag.

Though the government resumed pooja at the Kedarnath Temple in September, airlifting select religious heads, journalists, bureaucrats and a few locals, the road to the temple has still not been constructed. Even Gaurikund village, 14 km down from the temple, has not yet been connected by road.

Ajay Bhatt, senior BJP leader in the state, says that many villages on the way to Kedarnath Temple are still not connected. “The government has not touched many damaged houses near Kedarnath Temple. I have clicked pictures of corpses inside those houses,” says Bhatt.

The government puts the number of presumed dead at around 5,700 and the loss to property at Rs 14,000 crore. But it is still struggling to formulate plans to restore livelihoods immediately. The Cabinet Committee on Uttarakhand chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently approved a Rs 7,346 crore-package for Uttarakhand, The Uttarakhand government says that after the disaster, Rs1,114 crore was sanctioned by the Centre, of which Rs1,090 crore has already been released. Also, Rs154 crore has been given to Uttarakhand from the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund.

But opposition parties and civil society groups working there to rehabilitate the affected have criticise the Uttarakhand government’s efforts. “Around 200 roads are still not functional, 150 villages are without electricity and 100 villages are without water supply. 200 schools are damaged,” says Bhatt. The government has made false promises and not woken up to the reality even six months after the disaster, he says.  While such pessimism is only to be expected, how much more time and money will the Uttarakhand government take to get the state back to normal? And will there be a yatra next year?

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