Saturday, June 22, 2013

Nightmare in Uttarakhand as we speak

Now, please understand that this is not an alarmist post. When I wrote my previous post about prayers for people stranded in Uttarakhand following the worst Himalayan tragedy ever, I had some hope. Now I have nothing to count on, except the men in uniform and some sort of magic.

The latest official guesstimate in the media is that there could be a thousand casualties. I wonder how exponentially inaccurate that is. This article alone cites a 1,000 dead along the jungle route between Kedarnath and Ukhimath -people trying to escape the fury, but who fell along the way. There are another 546 bodies that have been discovered. 48 bodies were sighted floating in the Ganges near Haridwar. 1,000 is not even a ballpark estimate.

When the numbers are high, it boils down to math. The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) said today that it has rescued 3,500 people from Kedarnath so far. So far, so ok. We also know of a few who escaped on their own, walking all the way. But, on the day of the tragedy, 12,000 people were there in Kedarnath alone (including yatris, mule herders, and tourists). This was a record year for the Char Dham pilgrimage.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is Gaurikund, the starting point of the 14 km Kedarnath trek. On the day the disaster happened, there were around 5,000 people there, as they were wont to be, June being the high point of the pilgrim season. Rambara, the midpoint of the trek, there were about 3,000 people. We can only pray that a good percentage of them escaped or were rescued, because Rambara (specifically) and Gaurikund does not exist the way they used to.  I also shudder to think of what lies beneath the sludge in and around Kedarnath.

That said, however chilling, heartless, and painful as it may sound, those who are dead, are dead! We can count the numbers and wail for them another day. I'm worried about the living ones who are stuck.

Around 22,000 to 40,000 people (estimates vary depending on which source you look at) are still stranded waiting for helicopters or for the opening of roads. The Meteorological Department has predicted heavy showers on June 27th. I have scant respect for their predictions, but if it comes true, we have a three or a four day window for rescuing these people - that is, if they are not dead of hunger or dehydration by then. The altitude itself will take a toll on people not used to it.

Finally, it all boils down to 61 helicopters (I hope the administration can ferry enough fuel for those machines) to ferry people, the army, 4,000 ITBP men trying to reopen the roads, the resolve of those stranded, and a billion prayers! And......the mercy of a reckless monsoon that should please try and stay away for a few days.

Update (June 23): Thousands rescued from Badrinath as efforts are stepped up before potential rains. More rains are expected tomorrow.
Just spoke to Lakhpat Singh Negi of Saari Village. Chopta/Tungnath area is safe. 15 people from the village working as mule herders in Kedarnath believed to be dead. Mobile coverage is there for a few hours in a day.

Couple of instances of loot and extortion reported, but the main theme is of villagers offering help. Read Tilak's (he's based in Uttarkashi) account here

A must watch video along the same lines. Apart from the story of local support, she also makes a valid point - that of elderly people who are unfit to be able to walk the long distances - that's the bulk of the audience at the Dhams. :(

Update (June 24): A bad day for rescue as fresh rains hit the region. About 10,000 still stuck in areas like Harsil and Badri. Yesterday's statement from our Disaster Management Minister Yashpal Arya had some truth finally: "At least 5,000 people must have been killed in the deluge that inflicted heavy damage on vast tracts of land especially in Kedarnath Valley." Locals estimate a lot more. :(
Blame games have begun, while thousands are still stuck. The state government announced today that it will not allow unilateral rescue work by other states. Now this is a right move (check out the helicopter drama at Kedarnath where bigger army choppers had to wait for state choppers to clear), but it comes late. This should have been implemented much earlier - and that could have helped in coordinated rescue efforts. This step (and the statements that came with it) is now just a question of one-upmanship and credit seeking behavior.

Uttarakhand Governor slams Uttarakhand govt, Uttarakhand government slams other states, Tiwari slams Modi, Cong slams Modi but hails Rahul for visiting; BJP slams SP govt for rescue delay; Shinde slams everybody; Rain slams Uttarakhand! Gaaah! Has everybody gone slam mad? A friend described this on FB as a Grand Slam.

Update (June 25): Spoke to Kishan today, who's guided me on treks on a few occasions. He had a miraculous escape. He was guiding a trekking party further up from Gomukh (Tapovan/Nandarvan) in the Gangotri region while all this happened. He was lucky that the damage happened behind him. Everyone in his party is safe. It took him a few days to get back to Uttarkashi from Gangotri.

The chopper crash was waiting to happen, given the frequency of sorties. Hats off to the IAF men, without whom the Himalayan tragedy could not have been tackled at least in this fashion. Never would so many sorties have been flown in peace time - truly Himalayan effort!

Got some more inputs from the ground about casualties - Yashpal Arya's estimate two days back pales in a disturbing manner in comparison. People are talking high 5 digits now. 15 to 20,000 or more people are dead or missing, is what they say. For once, I'm praying that Mr. Arya is right.

Update (June 26):  Bad weather. Some reports indicate that 5,000 people are still awaiting help. Some say 7,500. Hard to get credible information. Mass cremations underway. The news media is focusing on politics rather than the plight of the travelers and locals. Few articles about rehabilitation of the locals over the short and medium term, which is the next tsunami waiting to happen.

Congress support trucks stuck (btw, the flag-off picture belongs to the top of the tragedy pics - F1 race or what?); political fistfight over claim to rescued peopleor this; Shiv Sena's fixation, or Akhilesh Yadav's stance. Tell you all what? The people dead and decaying or those stuck up there don't care now who wins the elections in 2014. So, with sugar on top, as Russell Peters says in a Chinese accent, "Be a Man!" 

The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), the nodal agency for disaster management (a disaster in itself), released some bullshit numbers about casualties/missing people today (560 dead and 340 missing), that would put Ostriches to shame. People have a right to know, don't they?

Look at the screen capture from the NDRF web site, and find out for yourself a vital list that is missing (I can live with the typos). There's this anger building in me toward Web sites, but I will save it for another day.

And btw, Uttarakhand minister Yashpal Arya denied today that he said earlier that he feared the toll was nearly 5,000. Mr. Arya, I'm still hoping that your "misquoted" number is right. Coz I hear much worse.

Kudos to the IAF chief: "Our rotors will not stop churning.” I wish we had leaders like that.

Update (June 27): People are still stranded in Badrinath, with the weather turning bad. Badrinath, thankfully is the best of the four Dhams to be stuck at (relatively speaking), because of the better infrastructure. Some are stuck at Harsil too, some distance away from Gangotri. Harsil too, has better infrastructure because it is a military outpost. I'm not suggesting being stuck anywhere is ok, but if you had to chose a few better places to be stranded in northern Uttarakhand, these two would make it to the top three. 

Media is starting to move on to the next big stories. Perhaps the government is also waiting for us to forget the intensity before they release key statistics of the tragedy. I heard of a TV channel reporter today. She was standing on a bridge and saying "Many bridges like these have been washed away in the tragedy. And that's bad. If this bridge breaks, then the connection between that hill side and this hill side will be lost." Wonder why we have such dunderheads sent to tragic locations to report.  

A disturbing article. And another one again from TOI, with the conspiracy angle, but it does raise some valid questions.Or this, gaaaaah.

And where is Sanjay Dutt, Amar Singh, Anil Ambani, Abhishek Bachan, and Jaya Bachan? These are people who have been featured in cheap T-series videos on the day of Kedar and Badri opening, year after year.

Update (June 28) Harsil has been cleared but about 1,500 still stranded in Badrinath. Serious allegations against the way the Uttarakhand state administration handled (handling) the crisis. I can only imagine the cataclysmic outcome (what happened is already beyond horror) if the army and paramilitary forces were not pressed into service. And finally the truth about the people who lost their lives may be coming out.

A critical road leading to the China border has been destroyed. I guess part of this is the one starting from Badrinath all the way up to Mana Pass (where they don't allow civilians to go). Met warns of more rains. 

A long shot on my puny blog, but this kid really needs some whereabouts.
Another reporter from the dunderhead clan:
I wish I could transcribe what she's saying in Malayalam. Well, all she's saying is "The helicopter is about to take off. This Helicopter is the only means of rescue. People are waiting to get into these helicopters. 1,000s are stranded. To go to Dharasu. We have been given strict instructions by the IAF to sit down like this when the helicopter takes off." Do you have any freaking idea of reporting a tragedy?

Update (June 29) Uttarakhand Speaker Govind Singh Kunjwal pegs death toll at 10,000; Shinde (India's messed up home minister) says 900. And this too, when people are still stranded. Great progress in clearing debris in places like Dharali. Epidemic outbreak is not rearing it's head so far. It's a miracle. I'm afraid of civil unrest now. 

Update (June 30) I don't know if I sympathize with the Uttarakhand CM who said today that the final toll of the tragedy may never be known. Too much happened in a short span for people to keep an exact tab. But there has to some tab that has to be kept. Insurance payouts and support requests cannot be negotiated in total uncertainty. "We will give the compensation amount to the next of kin of the missing if they give us an affidavit," he said. Really? An affidavit? Is it another scam in the making?

There is no exact bookkeeping at the Dhams, but may be we should start with simple steps with the final objective of arriving at some sort of realistic estimate of people affected - not with a self-defeating statement that we will never know.

How about checking the hotel records in places like Uttarkashi, Rudraprayag, Chamoli, and Joshimath from June 13 onwards? Most average hotels keep a record of people in transit while on the Char Dham circuit; and in those records, there is a column which requires mention of a traveler's onward destination. Usually, people meant for Kedar or Badri would stay in these locations. 

Most people don't do a Kedar trip or a Badri trip in isolation - so these records could be a good starting point in arriving at an estimate of people potentially affected. There could be more ways to do the math of "those present minus those rescued = those who did not make it". Can the administration start some concrete initiatives like those rather than opening up their mouths and saying "we may never know"?

And news reports indicate that a lot more are stranded than what the government says. Damn it, why did I never think of that? Should have known the lows that these jerks would stoop to. 

Update (July 1) Here are a few people trying to help:

Goonj, an NGO.   

Indian Railways with its offer of free transportation of donated material.

And here's a note from someone I know:
Probable items that we are collecting:
1. Biscuits/ ration
2. Torch/ batteries/ candles/matchboxes
3 Tarpaulin (to make shed)
4. Ground sheet/ Blankets
5. Basic medicines- Crocin/combiflam/ etc ( please be careful with expiry dates)
6. Old clothes
Please spread the word and help us in reaching out to people in these testing times.
Items can be donated with
1. Kartik Virmani- 9899669052
-B-176 Surya Nagar , Ghaziabad ( near Anand Vihar ISBT ) 201011
- Commercial Complex, Malcha Marg, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi 110021

2. Rajib Acharya- 9910449950
Flat No: GH 3008 SPS Residency
18B Vaibhav Khand
Indirapuram, Ghaziabad, UP - 201010

3. CSh Vivek-8826596264
8/802 East End Appartment ,
Mayur Vihar Phase 1 Extension

4. Tilak Soni -9810025788
Dangwal bhawan,
Kot bangla road

Update (July 2) The government is lying not only about the casualty figures but also about not having advance information about the weather pattern prior to June 16. Reports indicate that the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) had informed the National Disaster Management Authority NMDC about potential cloudbursts around the areas where the calamity happened (on June 15 morning). News here. Apparently people chose to ignore it. The information was received 16 hours earlier before the catastrophe struck. I'm not going to speculate as to how things could have been different if our sleeping agencies and governments had acted upon it. But the very fact that this information was not even made public, even weeks after the disaster reeks of a cover up. 

This was what Vijay Bahuguna, the state CM told NDTV on June 21 "It rains every year... there was no specific warning of a cloudburst, that too has to be area-specific." This lie was repeated many times over till Headlines Today procured information that specific predictions had been provided by ISRO to NMDC. Watch this video when you have the time. Ignore the noise and politicking and see how clueless our disaster management personnel are.   

What railed me even more was the manner in which a smiling (if not condescending) Shashi Tharoor responded to this shocking piece of inaction by a body headed by none less than the the PM. He sounds as though he is saying "you see, what's the fuss all about; dekha jayega, when the time comes!" Please ignore the anchor of the show.

One last bit. Headlines Today is the only media to cover this in a big way so far. Baaki sab bikau hai kya? What happened to breaking news on other 24/7 channels? Is the spin doctoring doing a decent job?

If true, this is as shocking a news as the tragedy: that we knew about it beforehand, and all through this while. What we could have done with it is another thing, but when the system is cavalier or dismissive about lying, under-performing, or misrepresenting information when tens of thousands die, the time is ripe for something else. 

Update (July 4)The government is planning to release a list of those presumed dead by July 8 - how accurate that one is going to be is anybody's guess. Then again, it is one small step in the obvious direction. While the lion majority of travelers stranded have been rescued, the problem associated with rehabilitating the local population remains. Here's a report of the struggle of the villagers of Mana, officially the last Indian village, 3 km from Badrinath. 

The government claims that there is no food scarcity in the flood hit areas and goes onto cite statistics of the supply situation. The problem may not be shortage of stocks, but the logistics involved in delivering them to far flung villages affected by the flood. Anyone who has traveled in Uttarakhand might be able to understand the meaning of the term "far flung" in this mountainous region. Hope the efforts of the administration and the NGOs bear fruit, so that we can avoid a famine on top of a flood. With their means of livelihood and agriculture shattered, the people of the state really needs a share of the national wallet and a slice of what is stored in the grain warehouses of the Food Corporation of India (FCI). 

There's more mess on top of whatever has happened so far in Kedarnath, with the return of the rains making mass cremations difficult. And the Met has predicted fresh heavy rains as the season of misery continues. 
Btw, Sanjay Dutt is planning to raise money for Uttarakhand victims through a paid premiere of his new movie Policegiri. Thought I'd mention it because I had wondered earlier why some people like him were silent about the whole affair.

A few more links:
Scientific coverage of the landslide by Dave Petley.
The least of the worries now, but the risk of heritage loss is clearly there with zilch security- our administration will never learn from failures.  
Heart wrenching first-hand accounts.

Update (July 12) A lake formed above Badrinath somewhere on the Satopanth route due to melting glaciers. Authorities have issued an alert for possible breach. Mana village sits in the way. Sometime in 2007 or 2008, there was a similar instance in the same area, but that was a glacier burst. No major casualties then, as it was a good 15-20 odd kilometers or so from the last outpost of civilization. I hope this one just peters away.

This is some old news about casualty count.  The government says that about 5,400 people are dead and not 11,000 as estimated by a UN agency (I'm not able to place a finger on this agency, btw). Spoke to people on the ground, and they are going berserk with their estimates.  1+1 ain't two anymore. :( 

And the army folks are opening a new route to Kedar. 

Update (July 20)
Vaibhav Kaul has this update on Indiamike, about extreme weather events in Inner Garhwal and Kumaon. I sincerely hope he is wrong.

This blog is the most informative that I have read about the cloudburst.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

3 dozen years and a ....birthday wish...or two

I'm not a great fan of birthday celebrations (when it comes to mine). In fact, I vividly remember just one one of my birthdays - the previous year's, when my colleagues totally tricked me into a gala time. This year, I guess it's not much of a celebratory mood. Around 6:00 AM, 21 June 2013, I would  turn 36 (unless my hospital records were doctored with some malicious intent).

I'm writing this piece with a purpose, and a sense of relief. I shouldn't have been in Bangalore today. There were two possible locations that I could have been in. One was Chattisgarh, the naxal infested state in India that I wanted to visit. In one moment of heightened emotion, following the brazen attack that killed about 28 people last month, I booked my flight tickets to Raipur, so that I would be in Chattisgarh on my birthday. The ill-conceived plan was to get on the ground, talk to people, and write about it. Well that plan just blew up on the ground itself (or in the hangar, as Calvin would say) as I realized the treacherous nature of the assignment in another moment of heightened clarity. One of my friends did help with his message "the naxals will provide candles for your birthday dinner".

The other plan I had was for Uttarakhand. As usual these days, I contacted Randeep (my fellow criminal travel buddy for Madmeheswar trek and Kumbh Mela) with plans to trek to Saptarishi Kund, a glacial lake situated at altitude of 4400 odd metres. The lake is the source of River Yamuna. And the idea was to be there on my birthday (note the narcissistic streak, My Lord). That plan was dropped as Randeep did not have the time to make it. I would have gone alone, but there's stuff. You know about stuff, don't you?

In retrospect, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because we might have found ourselves in the middle of a flash flood, one of the worst to hit the Himalayan ranges in recent years. Water levels in the Yamuna have exceeded record levels, while the rest of the region is grappling with rescue efforts for tens of thousands of stranded travelers and pilgrims. The current official death toll is about 140, but it may well touch four figures, after we take full stock of the situation once the debris settles.

The epicentre of the flash flood was the lake called Chora Bari Tal (aka Gandhi Sarovar), which is the source of the river Mandakini (which becomes Alak Nanda later on). Situated 3 km away from Kedarnath, this lake and its surrounding regions have been my favorite trekking ground for years. Well this is what's left of Kedarnath now:

Source of the pic.

My association with Kedarnath and the lake go a long way. My first journey to this region was in 1998. We had gone there as part of our Char Dham trip. We walked up in rains in June. That's Sumesh and Somnath, my juniors from college.  And they are wearing plastic makeshift ponchos protecting us from brrr rain.

Years and a few visits later, this is how the temple and surroundings looked in 2005. The majestic views of the Kedar Dome and the peaks around are unparalleled.
 The Kedar township from top on the way to Chora Bari Tal.

With my friend Sumesh, on the pathways around the temple, where currently you can find sludge that is 6 feet high. Oddly enough, that's my height too. Now, why did I think of a Creed song while I typed that?

Both of us kept our passion for the region alive. Incidentally, both of us got married at around the same time (I forget the year, because there is no time stamp on the pics ;) ). And it was no surprise, that we went with our equally enthusiastic spouses to this region. That's me and my wife in front of the glacial snout of Chora Bari Tal, the focal point of this year's disaster.
The rubble around the lake. This is part of the Kedar dome behind the temple, which broke this year sending huge rocks and sludge all the way down.The cloudburst and the water from the lake created a flowing wall of disaster that engulfed Kedarnath.

A peaceful resting place en route to Kedarnath. It would hurt anyone who's been here to think that none of this is there anymore.
I visited the place again in 2008 with my friend Shiju. I've written about it here. Here's a shot of the beautiful Mandakini river near Kedar. This year, she just changed her stance to the peril of  thousands of people.
 The lake from a different angle.
 When all of this decides to break lose, what can men do?
Compare this with the shots that you see today in the papers and you will get the full picture.
My heart goes out to those tens of thousands of people who are suffering right now. And, am I glad to have sidestepped this fury? Yes. But that does not reduce the pain. What's happened will for years continue to haunt people - yatris and trekkers. The army and BRO (Border Roads Organization) will do a decent job with rescue and reconstruction even given the constraints - that much I am sure of.

What I'm not sure of is the environmental angle - will the rape of the hills stop? Will the milking of the rivers - every few kilometers - in the name of power generation stop? Will the abuse of nature in the name of development (corruption) stop? I'm not sure. Because, what's a few thousand lives in a country with a billion people, whose collective memories are a blip. BTW, these dam construction efforts are staple scenes along the way!

I wish I had not changed my phones and lost Prem Singh's phone number in the process. He is (I pray that he is still around) a mule driver who once took me to Kedarnath on the back of his beloved mule, Rani. That was the time when I decided against walking the 14 km path from Gaurikund (Gaurikund, for practical purposes does not exist now.) to Kedarnath. He had saved my number as Kerala Babu, and used to call me once or twice a year just to check in on status. If I have just one wish for my birthday, I wish he is alive, and that all of the people who are in danger make it.
As for ecology, these roads less traveled need to be protected for our children. This one below has been destroyed, but we can rebuild!
Have a great year ahead, all of you! Now, that's a second wish, but then hey, it's my birthday. I shared this with a friend of mine, and the person had this to say:

"Advanced B'Day Wishes..Nice Blog..May be those rivers wanted to take a revenge for dumping all trash into them..I feel sorry for the people..but I feel sorry for the nature too..."

Peace! But there's a nightmare unfolding in Uttarakhand, as we speak.