It’s a phrase you hear all over Garhwal, the Western portion of the Himalayan state that was devastated by a cloudburst last June that left more than 5,700 people dead. Garhwal has the Chota Char Dham, an important stop on the Hindu pilgrimage circuit, and the region’s economy depends on the money that yatris bring in.
Yet this year, in the middle of yatra season, the place remains deserted. “It’s fear," Negi said. "Everyone saw the photos and the news last year. So why would they come?”
The visuals and statistics from last year certainly warrant fear. Uttarakhand saw a 375% rise in rainfall over the expected level, which caused the Mandakini river to burst its banks and set off mass landslides. More than 4,200 villages were affected. Entire rural communities were swept away, about 9,000 kilometres of roads were damaged, and more than 170,000 people – pilgrims and locals – were stranded, prompting a large-scale evacuation operation by the Army and Air Force.
Once the tourists and media left, however, the state and its residents had to contend with the devastation wrought by the natural disaster. “You can’t even imagine what the loss was like,” said Devinder Bajwal, a young man who lives in Chopta, a town that was high enough to avoid the worst of the aapda – the term locals use for the calamity. “When we went down, it was like there was nothing there. No roads, no villages, no people.”
It's getting better
Things have improved since. For most travellers, the path to Guptkashi from Haridwar or Rishikesh – where many pilgrimages up into the state’s hills begin – is more than serviceable. The village is an important stop on the way to Kedarnath.
“With special sanctions from the state Public Works Department and funds from the World Bank, we’ve been able to improve the state of the roads for those who are going for the yatra,” said Raghav Langer, the District Magistrate in Rudraprayag, one of the low-lying towns yatris must pass through. “Whatever was possible, with the technology available to us, I think we have managed to do.”
The road from Rudraprayag has been tarred, with wall supports added so it does not wash away at the first sign of heavy rain. But this road is fairly new, and residents are fairly cynical about the reason it was built. “The BJP started saying Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar, and suddenly they started building this road,” said Ajay, a bus driver who works out of Srinagar. “Until then people were putting together their own jhulas [rope-bridges] to cross the river.”
Whether the road was built with the elections in mind is debatable, but Langer insists the work is not simply cosmetic. He rattles off a list of achievements: electricity restored until the Kedarnath temple with 40 transformers operational, road width of 10-14 feet in the early portion of the pilgrim's trail, BSNL towers restored everywhere to ensure mobile coverage. He insists the work has been good enough to allow up to 1,500 yatris to Kedarnath every day.
A progress report on the World Bank’s $250 million Uttarakhand Disaster Recovery Project, which aimed to restore housing, rural connectivity and increase the technical capacity of the state, also concluded earlier this year that the work so far had been satisfactory.
“Project implementation is progressing well," ” the World Bank’s progress report indicated. "A strong Project Management Unit has been established, all contracts for construction of pre-fabricated structures have been awarded, and GoU [government of Uttarakhand] has undertaken a good and creative media outreach campaign to disseminate information for the owner-driven construction of houses. Good progress is being made on the housing and rural roads project component."
Part of this progress involves ensuring that the effects of a natural disaster of this kind are not felt as keenly. Piyoosh Rautela, of the Disaster Management Authority, said the weak monsoon coupled with the measures they’ve taken should make travelers feel safer.
“There are hundreds of State Disaster Response Forces. Road connectivity is good," Rautela said. "The telephone connections are there, so we are prepared for whatever might come.”
Others insist that little has happened. Locals still complain of not receiving the monetary compensation they had been promised, of buildings that have been left as they were after the calamity and of road conditions that would scare off the hardiest traveler. Yet even if the local authorities’ efforts have improved the infrastructure to such an extent that outsiders wouldn’t notice the difference, it doesn’t matter just yet – no one is coming.
“We can’t be blind to this," Langer said. "Obviously, the numbers are low, worse than anything we’ve seen. Our count so far shows we’ve received 25%-30% of the usual numbers. It’s clear that it will take two or three years to get back to normal.”
The impact is being felt even in areas where the floods did not do much damage. In Duggalbitta, Anil Rawat, the manager of a herbal resort, said their year has also been quiet.
“Last summer, if you had walked into the resort without a booking, you would have had to wait for weeks,” Rawat said. “Today, we’re basically working from day-to-day. You simply never know how many people will come.”
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