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It’s a cold, harsh winter of woes for the residents of Deoli-Benigram village in the hills of Uttarakhand, a place from where only muted sobs of widows emerge six months after the Himalayan tsunami swept away most of Kedarnath. In one night, this bright sunny village turned into a picture of doom and gloom with 57 men being swept away in the tidal wave, leaving behind as many widows from ages ranging from 22 to 70 to fend for the family without any means. BISWAJEET BANERJEE reports from the spot

Sixtythree-year-old Bijaya Devi does not venture out of her house anymore. Ever since she lost five of her dear ones — husband, three sons and a nephew — in the ill-fated June 17, 2013 flashfloods in Kedarnath valley, she has stopped meeting people. Queries about the catastrophe are met with stoic silence.

Sitting in her verandah, she glances at her one-and-half-year-old grandson playing in her lap. The child, who lost his father in the tragedy, looks at her playfully. She re-adjusts his headgear and caresses his cheek. Her eyes well up and tears roll down her cheeks. That does all the talking for her.

The Deoli-Benigram village, nestled atop a hill in Guptakashi, is testimony to Nature’s fury and Government apathy. The village, with a population of over 200, saw 57 deaths in a day which left behind 37 widows, giving it the infamous tag of ‘Village of Widows’.

Bijaya is the oldest of the Himalayan tsunami widows in this village while her daughter–in-law Kiran Purohit, who is just 22, is the youngest. “That night changed our life,” she says, wiping tears with the corner of her crumbled saree. “We were a happy family. My husband and my sons were doing good business in Kedarnath. We had everything. And now, we have nothing. Just six months back, we were the richest family in this village and now we do not know from where our next meal will come,” she tells you as her grandson touches her face and smiles at her. She smiles back tremulously.

Bijaya’s husband Pashupati Prasad Purohit used to earn Rs 6,000 a month during the Char Dham yatrawhich starts with the opening of the Kedarnath Dham dwar in May and continues till October. The earnings in this period are good. Bijaya does not know how much exactly her husband earned but she says that he used to bring wads of notes of all denominations every month of the yatra. Pashupati was a priest in the Bhairaonath temple in Kedarnath while his three sons looked after two lodges and a grocery shop in Kedarnath. The earnings were enough for the family to tide over the harsh and jobless winter.

Pashupati had sold his farm land to invest in two lodges at Kedarnath. He was planning to renovate one lodge this year after the yatra. At least 51 neatly chiselled timber pillars stacked in his two-storeyed house tell you of his dream.

“We have lost everything. There is nothing left in Kedarnath. Our shop and lodges were razed by big boulders which came down with gushing glacial water. Where we used to have our lodge, now stands a big boulder. We not only lost shops but our income too,” Kiran says. Kiran lost her 26-year-old husband and dreams which she had woven of a happy life with Akhilesh. “He wanted me to be a teacher and had told me to apply for a Government job. Just the day before the tragedy struck, he called me up to say that the Uttarakhand Government had jobs for teachers. He had procured forms from Gaurikund and was to bring them with him in his next visit,” she says. That was the last time Kiran spoke to her husband Akhilesh.

The story of Laxmi Devi is no different. Her husband Harshvardhan, 40, was a photographer working in Kedarnath.  He used to eke out his living by clicking pictures of tourists. He used to stay in the Kadarnath valley for six months — from the start of the Char Dham Yatra in May till it ends in October.

“When flood came, my husband was in Kedarnath. He phoned me up to say on the morning of June 16 that situation was bad. Then there was no connection for four days. On June 19, a villager informed us of his death. He had apparently lost his life while saving over a dozen persons. He had gone to his make-shift home to collect his belongings when a boulder struck him and flattened the house,” Laxmi tells you, adding that the Government had given her a Rs 5 lakh compensation. “But there is no recognition of his bravery. Government should have respected that and rewarded for him that too,” Laxmi says.

It was six months back when the glacial lake in the Kedarnath valley burst, following a cloudburst. Heavy boulders along with slush rolled down from the mountain and flattened whatever came in their way. It rained continuously for three days after which the two major rivers of the region — Mandakini and Alakhnanda — went into spate.

Mother of two Ranjana Bajpai recounts the day. “I will never forget that day. It happened so fast. Just a day before the tragedy struck my husband, Vinod (he had a shop in Kedarnath) had come to the village and left for Kedarnath with a promise to come next week. Next day, on June 17, it rained heavily. The shop was on the side of a hill which was washed away. He was in the shop when it happened,” Ranjana, a high school pass out, says.

She got Rs 5 lakh as compensation and now works with an NGO where she is being taught to weave. She gets Rs 1,500 per month. “One day I will earn enough to send my son to a computer institute,” she states.

Though the iconic Kedarnath temple, one of the holiest Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, escaped major damage, up to 10 feet of debris covered the area around it. The flooding washed away roads and nearly two dozen bridges were demolished as were 365 houses in Uttrakhand. The trail of destruction can still be seen. The damaged houses on the banks of the Alakhnanda tell you the tale of the flood fury. A majority of the foot bridges have been washed away, compelling locals to cross the river on a dangerous, makeshift ropeway. Rockfalls and landslides have increased manifold, making driving a risky proposition.

The Government still does not have a record of how many people actually died in this tragedy but officials say around 1,000 bodies have been recovered from the Kedarnath valley and over 5,700 people are still missing. This missing list includes pilgrims from Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh. Locals say, bodies can still be found rotting in the debris strewn all around.

The catastrophe has not only left behind the trail of death and destruction but also deprived locals of a livelihood. As agriculture is rained, the economy of the villages in and around Kedarnath depends on this holy temple. Elders worked in temple as assistants or jajmaan. They perform puja in nearby temples while the young people ferry pilgrims to the temple on mules and children on their backs aspitthu. Young students used to help the family during their summer vacations so that the families could save enough from one season to buy their own mules for the next season.

The Kedarnath pilgrimage is known to be a hard one. Located at a height of 3,583 metres above sea level, the area it is flanked by snow peaks. The temple is located just below Chaukhamba Parvat (four-pillared mountain). The road up to Gaurikund is motorable and the rest of the distance, which is about 14 km, is covered by foot or on ponies and in some cases, the aged and the sick are carried to the temple on make-shift palanquins by locals.

“It was a lucrative business for the villagers. The mule operators used to get Rs 1,900 for one round trip from Kedarnath and in six months they used to earn enough to expand their business in the next season while the palanquin carriers used to earn something about Rs 4500 in one trip alone,” Shiv Lal, a resident of Bhatwadi village, says.

Lal started his mule operations on the treacherous road from Gaurikund to Kedarnath about five years back, after completing his graduation. In this time, he expanded his business to own and ply 17 mules. On June 17 this year he was at Kedarnath when tragedy struck. It first rained and then started pouring. “When the boulders and slush started rolling down, we knew something was wrong. I left Kedarnath immediately. But there was no road. The kuchcha road that connects Gaurikund to Kedarnath had been washed away. We were a group of over 100 people. We went to the forest to take shelter in caves and stayed there for almost eight days and survived on wild foliage,” he recalls.

“I could not contact my family. There was no network and my mobile phone battery had long died on me. By that time, word spread that I had died because eight of my friends who were with me at Kedarnath were washed away. When I reached village after eight days, the villagers could not believe their eyes. My wife clung to me and wept the entire night,” Lal says trying to hide his own personal trauma, wiping his eyes by the cuff of his shirt.

With all his mules washed away in flash floods, Lal is now jobless and looking for a Government job as compensation. “Earlier, life in the hills used to be dangerous but now it is living hell. There are no roads, water, electricity or employment. The Government gave lip service initially but that too has stopped now,” villager Vinod Kumar says. “People in many villages are still living in makeshift tents. How can they survive the winter in tents? How will they keep themselves warm,” he asks you.

Madhuri Devi, who is in her late 40s, lost her husband, young son and all the mules in the tragedy. “We revere Kedar baba (Lord Shiv). Never in my dreams I thought that I will lose my family members in Kedarnath. We had nine mules that used to take pilgrims from Gaurikund to Kedarnath. Is this not sewaof Baba Kedar,” she asks. “My husband was in Rambara and son in Kedarnath. Both of them were washed away with mules. We were happy. Government has given me money but that money can’t bring my family,” she tells you.

Officials say that their first priority was to rescue people and then provide relief. “Now, we are looking at the rehabilitation of these victims. The Government has given Rs 5 lakh each to the family of those killed or missing in the tragedy. Those whose shops or hotels were washed away or damaged in the flashfloods were given Rs 25,000 each. We have also incorporated Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) in the rehabilitation work. Any farmer who makes funds on his farmland would be paid as per the MNREGA rate. The Gram Panchayats have also been asked to set up group of eight to 10 people and if they collectively work in their farm they would be paid as per the rates,” sub-divisional magistrate Rakesh Tiwari says.

However, there are no takers for these schemes. The villagers who used to earn anything between Rs 1,500 and Rs 1,900 a day are not interested in the Rs 190 a day scheme that the Government has offered.

Bijaya is not comfortable with these intricate calculations that Government schemes often throw up. Sitting on the terrace of her house where she had come to get some sun on a cold December noon, she looks at the Chaukhamba Parvat in the horizon under which the Kedarnath Temple stands. “My husband and sons served Kedar baba for so many years and, in turn, he took their lives. Why, what for?” she asks no one in particular. No one has an answer to her painful query.

A helping hand

With Government failing to do its duty many voluntary organisations have extended helping hand by setting up schools or giving vocational training to the widows who lost their husband in the catastrophe that hit Kedarnath valley on June 17 this year.

Taking the lead Sulabh International adopted Deoli-Benigram village in Rudraparyag which has been re-christened as Village of Widows where 37 women were widowed on the night of June 17. Over 300 families in the village get Rs 1,000 per month as stipend.

Founder of Sulabh Sanitation Movement Dr Bindeshwar Pathak launched a vocational training programme by opening training centre for the women most of them are widows. The NGO has started imparting them vocational training in candle making, sewing, making diya-batti and is giving basic education besides making them computer literate. At least 12 computers and 25 sewing machines were donated to the local villagers.

“We do not want the village to get a tag of Village of Widows. We want it to become ‘model village’. Now, we will take care of their needs. We will impart vocational training to widows and ensure proper education to the kids,” Dr Pathak says adding that whatever is possible to mitigate the sufferings of these hapless women, Sulabh will try its best. “We have always helped people in distress, and in this instance of Himalayan tsunami our efforts will match the magnitude of the devastation,” Sulabh founder said.

Yatra apprehensions

As the Congress Government in Uttarakhand grapples to provide relief to the the flood ravaged people of this hill State there is apprehension over people’s response for the next Kedarnath Yatra.

There are many ifs and buts because the response Government got post-tragedy was abysmally low. After the kapat (doors) of Kedernath were re-opened on September 11 just 150 to 200 pilgrims visited Kedarnath per day where as pre-tragedy over 15,000 pilgrims used to visit this Holy shrine every day.

“This fall in the number of pilgrims’ has come as a shocker. We are hopeful that by next year people will come out of the shock and come in large number. Our response will depend on the people we get on the pilgrimage,” Rakesh Tiwari, SDM, Ukhimath, under whom Kedarnath comes, said.

The pilgrimage to Kedarnath is tough. Up to Gaurikund there is motorable road. People can come by their own vehicle or public transport. The rest of the distance is either covered on foot or on mules. Earlier this distance was 14 km but after tragedy a new route has been found which is 19 km long. The Government now wants that pilgrims should return to base camp in Gaurikund the same day to ease pressure on Kedarnath.

“If there is no increase in number of pilgrims we will manage the flow. But if over 10,000 people come there on daily basis we will have to issue passes and regulate the number of people visiting the shrine,” Tiwari tells you adding that next year might see new restrictions.

My husband and sons served Kedar baba for so many years and, in turn, he took their lives. Why, what for? We were a happy family. My husband and my sons were doing good business in Kedarnath. We had everything. And now, we have nothing. Just six months back, we were the richest family in this village and now we do not know from where our next meal will come

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