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A year after the flash floods, the road to rehabilitation in Uttarakhand remains long and rock

On the morning of June 16, exactly one year after the cloudburst that devastated , I walk around the ruined temple town. Broken doors hang on broken walls in buildings the government has declared will never be rebuilt. They haven’t been demolished either, and consequently, it feels as if the disaster occurred just yesterday. It’s clearly still fresh, too fresh, in the minds of the few pandas (priests) remaining there.

“I was in my room around 8 pm when I heard the roar of water and the sickening sounds of boulders crashing on houses,” says Satish Chandra Tiwari, one of the few survivors there. Survival has come at a price. Tiwari can’t live in his own house any more as the government isn’t allowing anyone to stay there. He hasn’t received compensation either. “Since the temple opened this year, I’ve been staying in tents or wherever I can find room every night,” says he, “but how long can I sustain this nomadic existence? If I don’t conduct prayers in the temple, I won’t be able to earn a living!”

The series of cloudbursts in  left over 5,000 people dead and washed away entire villages in a span of a few days. For those who live on, life will never be the same again. Not only have they lost loved ones, mostly the primary wage earners of their households, the drastic drop in tourist numbers afterwards has severely impacted their livelihoods as well. Tiwari says that earlier he supplemented his income by renting rooms in his house to pilgrims. “This used to be enough to feed and clothe my family all year,” says he. “Now my home is out of bounds and my temple earnings are a tenth of what they used to be.”

He, at least, has that. I visit the village cluster at , which has come to be known as the “village of widows” when over 60 of its men died in Kedarnath. “After the mahapralay (as the disaster is locally known), women had to cope with not only the loss of their menfolk, but also, in most cases, complete loss of income,” says Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, the NGO that has since adopted this cluster of villages. Ila Devi lost her 23-year-old son and husband in Kedarnath, where they used to ply mules and palanquins.

“My widowed daughter-in-law now works as a labourer and we also receive a pension of Rs 2,000 each from Sulabh,” she says. Additionally, they’ve both received Rs 5 lakh as compensation from the government. The money offers poor solace though. Her house needs repairs, and there’s no one to do it. Her grandson is now 18, but jobless as the two women are afraid to let him out of their sight.

The lack of work opportunities is a major issue in Uttarakhand. I chat with Vijaya Devi who has two unemployed sons, one with a BTech and the other with a BSc degree. “Before the cloudburst, they’d have fallen back on the tourist trade when all else failed,” she says. “Both are sitting idle at home… As for tourism, god alone knows when it will pick up again!”

The government, as well as many NGOs, has initiated several livelihood schemes in Uttarakhand. In Phata, 24 km from Gaurikund, HelpAge India has organised training in wool felting for 40 women and has two more such programmes in the pipeline. “Wool is a waste material here, so we thought of using it to create saleable rugs,” says Yogeshwar Kumar who runs the programme.

“We’re also sponsoring the construction of multi-use waterwheels that grind grain and generate electricity. Two such wheels are under construction right now.” Currently, what they need is marketing infrastructure so that these products find buyers. HelpAge’s Mobile Medical Units (MMUs) — vans with a doctor, social worker and pharmacist — travel to remote villages in Rudraprayag, Chamoli and Pithoragarh on set days every week.

Often this journey has to be made on foot and not in the van. I travel with the Phata-based MMU to a village near Gaurikund and realise how urgently rural areas here need access to medical facilities. In Devli, for instance, where no such facilities exist, almost everyone I meet had ailments that had been treated in Rudraprayag or even Dehradun, over 200 km away.

What Devli lacks in medical infrastructure, it gets in aid. Sulabh International has held training workshops there in sewing, candle-making and computer training since December 2013. “Over 90 children from Class IX upwards have gained basic computer skills,” says Vinita Verma, project head at Sulabh. The organisation has also initiated a six-month beautician training programme there.

The NGO expects to stay involved for a long time as the widows of Devli are totally unused to working outside their homes. “We want to help them market the products they make (the candles, for instance, are being sold in Rishikesh) until they are able to do so independently,” says Verma. Additionally, the NGO has committed to giving each widow in Devli Bhanigram Rs 2,000 a month for at least five years to set them on the road to rehabilitation.

Other agencies are working to ensure that victims and survivors don’t become dole-dependent. “Under our ‘Cloth for Work’ campaign, we identified the key issues in each village — cleaning up the debris left by the flood, re-building village roads, broken bridges and more,” says Anshu Gupta, founder of Goonj, one of the largest relief and rehabilitation agencies working in Uttarakhand.

In all, affected villagers have carried out 180 such projects, getting winter kits, solar lights and more in exchange for their labour. “Our aim is to dignify relief by helping people to help themselves,” says Gupta. Goonj has been able to reach out to over 8,800 affected villagers in the year since the disaster. Yet, on the ground, as I drive on the freshly-paved roads of the state (such a change from the previous year, by the way), it’s evident that all these rehabilitation efforts, laudable in themselves, are mere drops in the ocean.

The key issue today is how soon the survivors of Uttarakhand can rebuild their lives. Astoundingly, relief efforts by the government and NGOs seem to have largely ignored the very real issue of post-traumatic stress here. Some people I’ve met are still too traumatised to be able to think of working. Raghuvir Prashad of Devli Bhanigram survived the cloudburst and walked for seven days without food to reach his village.

“Some days, even now, I can barely get out of bed. When I see families of the dead getting compensation and medical help, I wonder if I’m being punished for having survived!”Another Kedarnath survivor, Rameshwar, candidly says he can’t think straight in the morning without a quart of country liquor. His mules sit idle, for he doesn’t feel like looking at them any more: “even if someone paid me a lakh rupees, I won't return to Kedarnath!”

Clearly, the road to rehabilitation of Uttarakhand is going to be long and rocky. With the rains around the corner once again, one can only hope that they’re merciful this season, so that the ruins of Kedarnath don’t remain a metaphor for the psyches of Uttarakhand’s survivors.

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