Book : RAGE OF THE RIVER : The Untold Story of KEDARNATH DISASTER.
Author : Hridayesh Joshi.
Publisher : Penguin Books.
Pages : 209.
Price : Rs 399/-.
The book — RAGE OF THE RIVER : The Untold Story of the KEDARNATH DISASTER — was waiting to happen in Uttarakhand. This calamitous and frightening reprisal on June 16/17, 2013 had been building for days because of torrential rains and when all hell broke loose the inept administrative machinery headed by a clueless the then chief minister Vijay Bahuguna remained a floundering lot at the height of the tourist season.
Survivors stuck at considerable heights were left to fend for themselves without food or water for days. The heroism of the people helped save adequate number of people from drowning or being washed away. They made available cooked food for the starving pilgrims along with providing as much succour as they could in the trying circumstances.
Thousands of people perished and lakhs lost their employment. The normally calm Mandakini came crashing down from the hills and destroyed everything in its path: houses, bridges, dams and the town of Kedarnath.
The government continues to remain in denial. The Kedarnath valley continues to haunt us — though the temple has been restored, given its religious importance and centrality in the local economy. Woven into this haunting and nerve wrecking narrative of the travails of the people from the most remote parts of the state including areas cut off from the rest of the world.
Author Hridayesh Joshi, senior editor, National Affairs in NDTV India was among the first to reach when disaster struck Kedarnath. He stayed there for weeks travelling the length and breadth of Uttarakhand covering the calamity. This is his first hand account of those caught in the middle of nature’s fury. The book has been written in Hindi and translated by Vandana R Singh, who is head, English language dissemination, in an organisation involved in skill development, capacity building and upscaling the employability quotient of youth.
It was in the evening on June 17 that a captain of a private airline was asked by the union government to assess the situation in the Kedar valley. After seeing all the destruction from the air it become difficult for him to maintain his composure. From 9000 ft to 12000 the pilot informed a senior official of the civil aviation ministry that thousands of people were stuck. Many had been swept away by the river and countless were buried under the debris.
The next few days saw many lives in balance. It was obvious that the biggest ever air rescue mission would be carried out at such a height for the first time in the history of the world.
Joshi and his colleagues were on a ” journey without a path” as the violent tributary of the Ganges had left a sorded saga of destruction which had already been scripted on the hills of Uttarakhand and signs of disaster could be seen all around. The last few days had seen Mandakini at its destructive worst right from its source to its confluence with Alaknanda.
Massive chunks of the road to Kedarnath had been washed away. Even though H S Rawat as a minister in the then Bahuguna government took graphic pictures of the disaster during an aerial tour, it was shocking that despite a minister being aware of the extent of damage caused the state government was trying to cover up the tragedy.
This was specially true regarding the number of casualties and people stuck or stranded. They heard in Srinagar town 36 hours after the tragedy that the administration tried to close the chapter by offering a princely sum of Rs 2700 as compensation to each affected family. The author saw that all the roads had been damaged and the mountains had been stripped bare by the repeated landslides.
A priest and survivor in Kedarnath Ravindra Bhatt recalled on June 16 a huge sheet of water gushed down from the upper reaches and the area around Kedarnath was flooded. “Bhaiji, we were face to face with death–it was as though Yamraj was actually in our midst. We tried to calm down people saying have courage…this dark night will end…soon it will be morning…we will survive this,” Bhatt said.
The next morning on June 17 morning Kedarnath was filled with water and dotted with huge boulders. “To save myself I had to jump into the swirling waters. I was in the water for nearly 15 minutes. And then miraculously the water deposited me on a side and I lay there for a long time. The next day rescue workers found me and brought me to safety,” Bhatt said.
After hearing several first person accounts Joshi and his colleagues were convinced about the gravity of the situation. The first helipad that they came across was on the morning of June 21 belonging to a private airline five days after the disaster had struck. Pilots doing sorties to get people out of Kedarnath disclosed that there were at least 1000 people stuck there and it would take a whole day of clear weather to bring them all back. This kind of a rescue job required large helicopters like the ALH or the Mi 17 which remained conspicuously absent even four days after the tragedy.
The pilots in their small helicopters showed tremendous grit and will power in ferrying the affected to safe places. This facilitated mediapersons to meet the stranded pilgrims and hear their harrowing tales. When an elderly person was approached he initially chocked with emotion but gathered courage to say….”twelve of my family members were swept away. My relatives, friends, children, wife…all are gone, I have no one left.” This story had shaken “each one of us to the core”, recalled the author. They needed a helicopter to go to Kedarnath. Ethics did not allow them as it would block two people from being rescued.
They decided that at such a critical time they could not obstruct rescue work in any way. Every pilot involved in the rescue mission was angry that the attitude of the government was extremely lax and had it been more pro active, many more lives could have been saved.
Finally on reaching Kedarnath Joshi found it in ruins. “It was hopelessly trapped in a deathly silence. Armed with pictures of death and destruction Joshi and and his team were on their way back to Delhi. We could not help wondering how terrifying that day of destruction must have been.”
The government shamelessly spread lies and Joshi and his colleagues decided to counter it vociferously and expose those making such claims. What has come to the fore is the country’s unpreparedness to handle calamities of this scale. “We need to rise from our stupor,” stresses Joshi.
The phenomenon of climate change can no longer be seen as a piece of fiction or fantasy anymore. There are clear indications of an increase in extreme weather events and this is going to have a very disastrous impact on society. “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” emphasises the author. A must read book unmasking the shameful role of the political busy bodies in Uttarakhand.