February 21, 2020
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Nature's Fury, Man's Folly

The casualties in the Kumaun region could have been minimised if the MEA had been far-sighted

Nature's Fury, Man's Folly

Karmi bagi garh jainta,
Ghar janu bhali hei raiye.
Tu ni maar darh jainta,
Ghar janu bhali hei raiye.

(Karmi village has been washed away in the rains,
 Sweet adieu to you, Oh beloved! Take care....
Don't you cry my beloved!
 Sweet adieu to you, take care...)
—A Kumauni folk song by Girish Tiwari 'Girda'.

WHEN calamity struck, practically no one was left behind to cry for Malpa. Over 210 people, including 60 pilgrims, were killed in the tiny Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrim camp in Pithoragarh district. The dead remained buried under tonnes of debris for days. And for the stranded survivors, life was tortuous—no food, no medicines, no shelter.

Caught off-guard as usual, the administration failed to provide any immediate relief. Even four days after the tragedy, no relief could be sent in from Dharchula base camp, due to heavy rain and continuous landslides. Thus, lack of foresight and infrastructure, coupled with the fury of nature, turned the yearly pilgrimage into a grave human disaster.

It's a two-to-three day journey on foot from Dharchula to reach Malpa. And the administration woke up to the crisis only three days after the tragedy. Initially, the only rescue work came from a few Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and army jawans stationed in the upper regions. "But they can't do much because it is difficult to access the area," said an official. Even as Devendra Pandey, the SDM in-charge of Dharchula, informed mediapersons that food packets had been sent to the spot on August 20, three days after the disaster, a nervous voice over his wireless handset shrilled: "Wahan khana nahin hein, log behad pareshan hein (There is no food, people up there are in great difficulty)". Thirteen survivors are said to be in 'critical condition', and a handful of ITBP personnel were waiting for rescue teams in the face of death.

Shockingly, even four days after the disaster, the administration had no authentic first-hand account of what actually happened in Malpa on the night of August 17. They did not have any concrete answers to queries regarding the condition of 13 survivors—all locals. Nor could they be specific about the identification of bodies or report any progress of the rescue operation codenamed 'Operation Whitehorse'.

More attention was paid to the Mansarovar pilgrims. Special choppers were being provided to their relatives and Kumaun Mandal Vikas Nigam officials were deputed to guide them. And this has generated much anger among the local people. Over 150 porters, shopkeepers and pony guides have been killed in the mishap, say the local people, but it was being projected as if the pilgrims were the only victims. "Nobody is ready to listen to local people.

They are coming to me. They are equally in need of relief", says Jawahar Singh Nabiyal, former block pramukh of Dharchula. Admits Kanshi Ram, chief development officer, Dharchula: "The people are naturally agitated. We should not give this message that only pilgrims are being given attention".

As the relatives of those feared dead waited for their turn to board the helicopter at the Bareilly Air Force station, a faint hope seemed to revive within some. Says Kirti Kumar Futnani, a martial arts instructor from Chennai: "My elder brother Harish Futnani was in the 12th batch. I don't know what has happened. But I am praying for some miracle. So is everybody, I guess".

Ashita, sister of one of the most well-known of the landslide victims, celebrated Odissi dancer Protima Gauri Bedi, had come from Mumbai along with a relative to find out about her sister. "If you want to talk about my sister, I am sorry, I won't be able to talk", Ashita refuses politely, rather uncomfortable with all the media attention.

Up in Dharchula, Rakesh Arya, pilgrimage officer of Kumaun Mandal Vikas Nigam, has fond memories of the doomed group. At the base camp he interacts with the pilgrims and looks after their wellbeing. Recalls Arya: "I didn't know who she (Protima) was. When she was served poories, she said 'I prefer chapatis'. I immediately served her chapatis. She had three chapatis, then we got talking. In the end she told me 'I am Protima Bedi, don't forget to see my programme on Star TV the day after tomorrow. Those were her last words to me. News of the disaster came before I could see her on TV".

Pure coincidence saved some from the jaws of death. And doomed others, who were not scheduled to go with the ill-fated 12th batch but were included at the last moment. Recalls an MEA official: "One of the pilgrims had lost Rs 38,000. There was no way that he could go. But then all other pilgrims pooled in money and bought him foreign exchange. Finally he was included in the group only to meet his end".

MUCH second-hand information about the happenings of the night of August 17 was provided to Outlook by Jawahar Singh Nabiyal. On that fateful night, one of his relatives was staying in Malpa. He told Nabiyal that at around midnight he felt some tremors. Before he could realise anything, the earth under him was jolted and flashes of lightning was followed by loud thunder and heavy rains. The Kali river was already in full spate. Within no time all the hutments came under the debris. A wireless station had been set up by the ITBP in a guesthouse, which, as it was in a distant corner of the village, was the sole building to have survived. But for that wireless—which is barely in working condition—the entire area is now incommunicado.

The only other land route to reach Malpa and beyond is now via Nepal. Authorities in Dharchula confirm that the Indian government was trying to take Nepal's help. Says Devendra Pandey: "We are trying to contact authorities in Nepal. From Nepal we will try to reach the spot where the incident has taken place."

 As every other measure to send relief failed, the administration even toyed with the idea of setting up ropeway trollies through the mountains to rescue the survivors, says Dr P.D. Verma, who mans the control room in Dharchula.

Essentially, however, an inexperienced administration was still waiting for a miracle to happen. SDM Pandey was even quoted as saying that some rocks will have to be exploded to clear the debris. Says Nabiyal: "These people don't understand the fragility of the weak hills. I've done a course of mountaineering with Sherpa Ten Zing in 1957. There we were taught that in the fragile mountains even shouting loudly is prohibited, leave alone an explosion".

In the face of the worst-ever tragedy in the region, the tall claims made by the government and the administration stand exposed. Both in terms of the immediate handling of the Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrimage disaster and its consequent followup.  Even four days after the disaster, the local administration was still discussing ways and means to start rescue work. A group of mountaineers from Haldwani had offered their services for the rescue operations. While helicopters of the Indian Air Force (IAF) were ready to ferry the anxious relatives of the yatris up to Dharchula base camp, bad weather forced the authorities to abandon the rescue operations.

Sending initial relief teams wouldn't have been as difficult if the weather conditions had been more conducive. The motorable road is only up to Tawaghat, 19 km from Dharchula subdivision. From there, the pilgrims have to walk along a nine-day risky hilly track up to Lipu Lekh pass (5,000 m plus) on the Indo-China border. Malpa is the fourth camp on the border on this path.And isn't a regular village. With the inception of the yatra every year, people from around the region assemble here and set up small shops for the pilgrims. Most of the people killed in the incident were these local traders from the nearby villages of Gunji, Sirkana, Boondi and Jipti.

THE landslide washed away a 50 m stretch of the path connecting Malpa and areas beyond it to the rest of the world. The 12th batch of the pilgrims was supposed to move upwards on August 17. But as luck would have it, the weather turned bad and the group was advised to stay back in Malpa. With the group were 28 pony drivers, 35 porters, 19 workers of Border Roads and several local people including shopkeepers.

The Malpa disaster is not the first such incident in the area. The monsoon brings landslides every year. Sometimes these are minor. But more often it wreaks havoc. Floods, landslides, other natural calamities and pain wrought by them have become part of the mountain folklore. Local people and the district administration know fully well that Vyas, Chaundas and Darma valleys in that part of Pithoragarh have always been susceptible. The threat that hangs over the hills of Uttarakhand was emphasised by the fact that over a period of one month a spate of landslides and disasters have struck the area. In Ukimath, Rudraprayag, Mussoorie and Pithoragarh district, over 300 people have been killed in these incidents. Two decades back a big landslide swept away the whole of Tawa-ghat. And in 1983, monsoons swept away Karmi village and the people in the area.

Interestingly, whenever there's been a calamity, social groups like Uttarakhand Sangharsh Vahini were the first to reach the spot. Inspired by the famous Chipko movement, these groups explain that natural calamities were largely man-made. With activities such as mindless mining in the hills, disasters were inevitable. Surprisingly, this time round almost all these groups are a little slower to offer their assistance.

Chief minister Kalyan Singh has announced a relief grant of Rs 1 crore. And the government has announced the suspension of the yatra after the disaster; at least 100 people in three groups are still stranded beyond Malpa. Jayanti Chandra, commissioner, Kumaun division, told Outlook in Pithoragarh: "Three batches—9th, 10th and 11th—stuck beyond Malpa will be airlifted to Delhi whereas three other batches who were to go to Mansarovar have been cancelled".

Yet the authorities have no acceptable explanation as to why the yatra was not suspended, despite the heavy rains and continuous bad weather. Given the history of major landslides in the area, why was no contingency plan chalked out? Sources say the DM, Pithoragarh, had requested the joint secretary (MEA) to terminate the yatra owing to bad weather. His warning was not heeded. If the bureaucrats on Raisina Hill had only given credence to his reading of the ground situation, many lives could have been saved. But then, that is a different story. One with a less tragic ending.

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