Three months later, Kedarnath still in shambles

Dehradun, Sep 15 (IANS) Three months after tragedy struck the pilgrim town of Kedarnath, it still remains cut off with no approach roads, bodies still trapped under mounds of debris and scared villagers migrating to the cities - with some even planning to never return to the hill region exalted as the 'Land of Gods'.

Though the doors of the Kedarnath shrine opened Wednesday and puja was performed for the first time after heavy rains and floods during June 15-17 devastated the region and killed hundreds of people in Uttarakhand, the big challenge before the state government continues to be to provide relief and rehabilitation to the many rendered homeless in Kedarnath and surrounding areas.

"The inclement weather conditions continue to prevail in the Kedar valley and the only possible connectivity to the region is through helicopters, which gets affected in rain. It will get worse with winters approaching," local legislator Shaila Rani Rawat told IANS.

She said the Kedarnath temple was cleaned and prepared for puja, but the rest of the area is still covered under rubble.

"There are big boulders and smashed structures of building. They are still lying untouched. To remove those one needs heavy machines and other equipment. As there is no road connectivity till now, it is difficult to clear off the rubble," Rawat added.

Many NGOs working in the area say hundreds of bodies are still buried in the debris around the temple.

According to Durga Prasad, an Action Aid network coordinator working in area, the real picture about the number of people dead and affected in the flash floods will only be known after September when the rains would stop.

He says as of now, some semi-permanent roads are being built manually so that mules and porters can carry the relief material to the region.

All roads leading to Guptkashi, Uttarkashi, Joshimath, Alaknanda and Gangotri - the worst affected in the flash floods - continue to remain closed for traffic.

"There is a lot of relief material coming, but not everything is reaching the affected people due to logistic reasons. Many trucks carrying relief material are dumping the stuff midway as there is no way they can reach the villages," Prasad told IANS.

"Many people have even stopped coming to collect the relief material as they had to travel 10-30 km in difficult terrain and inclement weather. So we are trying to reach to them by taking the relief material on mules and porters," Prasad added.

Distress migration is emerging out to be another major problem for the Uttarakhand government as people from hills are moving to Dehradun, Rishikesh, Nainital and other cities in search of livelihood and out of fear.

"For the first time in my memory, hills are scaring people and post-tragedy they are migrating from hills to plains in large numbers," union Water Resource Minister Harish Rawat told IANS.

Rawat, who hails from Almora, feels migration from hills is the biggest problem after rehabilitation and reconstruction.

"We have to instil confidence among people that they are not alone in this moment of trouble and ensure the whole country is with them," said Rawat.

Chandan Kumar, national coordinator, Bonded Labour Eradication Programme, says people in hills are worried about the future and signs of distress migration are already showing.

"Most of the people, who lost their lives, are between the age group of 18-35. Those youths who survived the floods are now gearing up to migrate to the cities, leaving behind their frail old folks - leaving behind a sustainable life they were leading till a month ago," said Chandan Kumar, who had worked in the area initially.

It is not that poor but many rich people have also moved to plains after losing everything to the devastating floods.

"I will never go back to hills as I have lost everything, property and family in flash floods this year. I have decided to settle in Dehradun now," Leeladhar Jagudi, a Padmashri awardee and poet, told IANS.

Jagudi had lost seven family members, including eldest son, in the 1974 floods in the state and his hotel was washed away in the 2012 floods. He had suffered huge losses in this year's tragedy too.

There are also reports of people selling their land to big realtors and migrating to plains.

"We have been told that many big real estate companies are buying land from local people at throwaway prices," said a member of an NGO on condition of anonymity.

(Richa Sharma can be contacted at richa.s@ians.in)