‘It seemed unreal’
The Garhwal Himalayas have always been able to draw a crowd, beckoning the adventurer and ardent alike.
Every year, as spring blossoms into summer, the world-weary flock to the idyllic north Indian state of Uttarakhand.
For over a decade, P K Mohan, affectionately called ‘Mohanji’ has made a near-annual pilgrimage from his quaint Qurm home to sojourn in the hills, seeking knowledge in their nooks and tresses. Nothing Mohan learnt, however, could have prepared him for the calamity that lay in wait for more than 100,000-strong throng that made the journey this year. The Himalayas make ‘fragile, fickle’ teachers. ‘Easy to crumble. Easy to anger’.
It can be a treacherous uphill journey at the best of times, negotiating moody rivers and deep ravines on serpentine roads and slippery rock faces, along a route marked by dead drops and blind curves.
“The Himalayas are not strange to me. I have gone to them religiously since 2001. I like to wander in the tresses of the mountain and meditate,” Mohan said.
“It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” he added, referring to a perfect storm of circumstances that saw in mid-June unseasonable torrential rainfall and a disturbance in the glaciers that triggered flash floods and landslides near-throughout the valley.
The resultant fury, which some have likened to a Himalayan Tsunami, has over the last month killed over 1,000 (a ‘most conservative’ official estimate), stranded and displaced several times that number and wiped out a great majority (over 2,000) of the quiet hamlets in the affected area.
Mohan’s group was en route to the hill town of Badrinath when news of the disaster reached him. Though he had an inkling that something was amiss. “I saw a great boulder being tossed around by the river like it was nothing,” he said.
Mohan couldn’t believe the scale of the destruction as it was relayed to him in Joshimath, the routing town at the base of the hill.
“We were travelling with the rain. It still wasn’t enough to cause a landslide, which is a very common feature in the mountains. “From our vantage point, we could see the water-level rising. At the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) camp in Joshimath, we were told that a 100m stretch of road had been washed away on either side of the town as was a helipad and helicopter.” Though Badrinath is only about 30km uphill trek from Joshimath, “it’s a matter of altitude - Badrinath is 12,000ft above sea-level and Joshimath is at 8,000ft. It’s a steep climb up.”
“They said it’s unsafe to travel. That, in many places, the roads are gone and bridges broken. All the way to (the plains-town) of Rishikesh. It all seemed so unreal.” And then he saw it for himself.
“The ITBP had made space for nearly 300 affected - the ones lucky enough to get out - in their camp. The lucky ones had some money, but most had only the wet clothes on their back. They had to leave everything behind.”
Amid the hunched shoulders, drooping heads and worried eyes, there were precious few silver linings to be gleaned. Having lived through the worst was a bittersweet pill: of relief and regret. “Most of the refugees were happy to be alive... the sorrow came later.
At first, they were hopeful of finding their relatives.”
For most, that hope would evaporate once the sun came out and there was still no sign of their family members. “People were talking of vehicles being washed away. Passengers screaming and trying to claw their way out, but to no avail. The water was too strong and once the vehicles fell into the ravines, that was it.
“A refugee said he was sleeping in his second-floor hotel room in nearby Govind Ghat when the water gushed through the window. So you can imagine the height the water had reached. It’s almost like a tsunami wave. “In a flash flood, there’s only seconds to react. The mud was in constant flow. If someone was to fall down, he would have been immediately buried. The cars and debris washed away would have landed on top of him.”
Mohan recalls the all-pervading sense of uncertainty and wild fear in the camp.
“The side of the hill next to the camp came down on the houses in the town below. The fear was that the mountain on which the camp was based could fall too.”
But, there were also more immediate concerns. The camp was desperately short of medicines, blankets and potable water - with food being increasingly rationed as the number of refugees rose. “There was no electricity and you couldn’t use the generators for too long as oil was in scarcity. The water from the hills was murky and the rainwater was too cold.”
And though communications were patchy at best, Mohan managed to get the word out. His wife Biljana remembers her relief on getting the call. “Initially, we didn’t know what was going on, so we were worried,” she said.
“But deep inside I knew he was there for a reason. And I was confident that he would be able to handle it.” Throughout, the ITBP remained steadfast, mounting rescue operations, day and night, and caring for the displaced. “With the weather and altitude, there were no air rescues yet. Just rope- and rock-climbing,” Mohan said.
“They are trained for it, but it’s highly stressful. You are confronted by death and destruction. “They said they couldn’t sleep because of the stench of rot and the eerie feeling that people were trying to call out or claw their way out from under the mud.
“Some of them were traumatised. Many of the soldiers were crying. They were away from their families. “Commandant Praveen Tiwari, the ITBP commanding officer, said, ‘We are playing with lives - ours and theirs. The element of grace is what we are clinging onto. Not the rope (used in the rescues).”
And that grace found resonance with the refugees. “An old woman told me, ‘We came in search of the divine. We found it in the ITBP. Without them we would not have been alive today.’” In the face of such gallantry and dedication, Mohan sought to help as best he could. “We didn’t have the training to help the rescue effort, but wanted to do our part.
“When the rain subsided, we went down to the town for supplies. The shops didn’t have much to sell. The locals had started buying once the panic set in. We brought back cooking oil, vegetables, rice, flour, whatever we could.
“We didn’t carry much money - and there was no way to get any more money in. But we did what we could. Till the day we left, we were able to offer breakfast to those in the camps.” While hopelessness so often brings out the best in humanity, it also brings out the worst in them - as exemplified by a few ‘elites’ in commandeering the first choppers out of the area once the rain let up.
“It was disheartening to see ministers, police chiefs and other celebrities throwing their weight around, calling in favours to be put on the first flights out. No thought to women, children or those in need of medical attention.
“And private tour operators were extorting money from the impoverished to ferry them across. “I refused a spot in the chopper evacuations - preferring to leave once the roads were deemed safe enough to drive on. On June 20, we saw off three truckloads of refugees to Rishikesh before driving back in our car.”
Back with his family in Muscat after a nightmarish week, Mohan feels his work is unfinished. Through his foundation- based in India, Ammucare Charitable Trust, he hopes to see the job through. “We managed to send three truckloads of relief materials from Delhi. And we intend to adopt three of the affected villages in the future.”