When the Nature Strikes the Beautiful Hills
Compared to other regions, the fury of nature can have its worst brunt in the hills and post-disaster measures could be hardest to implement in the tough terrain. It was the summer of 1999 when the killer earthquake had devastated people, houses, tracts of lands and roads in and around Chamoli district. I had been summoned by PTI in Delhi, along with a photographer colleague, in the middle of the night to leave for Chamoli soon after the first reports of the deadly quake started tickling in.
After an arduous journey, as we reached the gutted place which had been Chamoli's old bazaar till the night before, I saw a devout Muslim, a lone survivor in a family of six, going down on his knees in prayers at sunset. He had just returned after cremating his mother, wife, two sons and a teenage daughter who was to celebrate her birthday within hours when the quake buried her in sleep. People were still in a state of shock, terrorized and refusing to come to terms with the reality, that they had lost their near and dear ones to nature's fury. The catastrophe had come suddenly, in a fraction of a moment, and they were all under the rubble, dead, half-dead, with fractured and crushed limbs, all crying for help as the nights passed by slowly.
A small hilly town like Chamoli did not have enough people and official machinery to provide enough relief. Such is the terrain that even people from one village were not able to know about the fate of their dear ones in another village, just about 2 kms away. It had taken 10-14 hours to dig out those still alive under the debris. It can take days for the officials to reach the far-flung affected villages not connected by the road. Chamoli had literally been turned into a ghost town overnight.Wailing of men, women and children filled the air as the smokes from the pyres of the dead ones hung over the morning skies. And as if nature was not satisfied with its fury, there were tens of aftershocks coming every few hours,further terrorizing the wounded populace, forcing them to rush out in the open.
The deforested mountains were dry and burnt out and the quake had been accompanied by the huge forest fires which went on for days and weeks, with no government machinery able to put it out. The fire would move majestically in a slow line on the mountain slopes in the night, shining beautifully, forming a kind of emerald necklace around the high hilly terrain. Wild animals seemed puzzled and were running to escape the heat, often towards villages. One could hear the snakes crawling nearby and leopards jumping across the field just behind the half devastated house.
Sleeping was a choice between the devil and the dead sea. If the villagers slept outside, the leopards and snakes could get them; if they slept inside the destroyed or semi-destroyed houses, the quake would get them. They opted for the former choice and everybody slept in the open, including the district magistrate. Few sleeping kids were taken away by leopards in several villages. Politicians came, ''surveyed'' the damage and went. Sonia Gandhi made her sudden visit, throwing the administration out of gear as little official machinery tended to her security arrangements rather than quicken relief efforts. Several philanthropic outfits descended onto the ravaged landscape, just like vultures, who hovered around the dead cattle in neighboring fields.
And then there was this organized rumor of an apocalypse. A theory had been floated that in the Hindu calendar, the pralay is destined. It is just about waiting to happen. The rumor had taken in its grip, apart from ignorant and God-fearing locals, even the educated lot of hill folks; from school teachers to few graduate chaps. Many were convinced that the stars were going to fall in one line, the earth will crack and the world is finally going to be destroyed. It would be the end. And the administration had no clue how to counter this meticulously organized rumor. The doomsday came and went without any pralay.
I was reminded of another quake which had struck Uttarkashi few years back in the winter. I had once again visited the quake-affected areas three years after the tragedy. Even after such a long period, people were waiting for many promises to be fulfilled, new ''scientific and quake-proof'' houses to be built around and roads, electricity and water lines to be rehabilitated. Hundreds of voluntary organizations had mushroomed there too in the immediate aftermath of the quake but most went away after the initial publicity, never to come back again. And people were bitter about such outfits. In both Uttarkashi and Chamoli no organization had opted for rendering relief in far-flung areas where even a local patwari did not visit weeks after the tragedy sometimes. Chamoli tragedy after Uttarkashi, as if we wait for one tragedy to follow another, because human life seems to have become meaningless, more so when it is the case in distant mountains, and far-flung villages within mountains. Accidents and ecological disasters are accepted as routine.
I vividly remember Satyanarayan's mother who hailed from a village (do not remember the name) on Uttarkashi-Gangotri road. She would always stare into nothingness in the sky. A widow since last 30 years, she had lost her only son to the the deadly quake. Villagers said she hardly spoke after the tragedy struck the family and those who heard her speak informed that she believed that the bright star over the horizon of the hills was her Satyanarayan. I was in Uttarkashi again last November. Years after the earthquake, as the winter starts setting in, God-fearing people of Bhatwari and Dindsari villages pray to their Bhairon and Nagraja Devata to let this winter pass without any shock.
Author: Harsh Dobhal
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