HIMALAYAN – TSUNAMI- A DISASTER ALBEIT AN OPPORTUNITY TOO (A CIVILIAN PERSPECTIVE)
By – Pundir
DISCLAIMER– These views are purely my own, not to be quoted anywhere and not aimed at hurting anyone’s sentiments (If it does – please pardon me).
I was a military pilot till last year and have since taken PMR and am now flying for Pinnacle Aviation- largely in the Uttarakhand hills.
There were 10 aviation companies operating from Guptakashi to Kedarnathji – for shuttle services. This was my second season there. The bad weather had set in earlier this time and unlike previous years when the companies used to wind up in the first week of july for the monsoons (due to dwindling numbers of pilgrims) , this year the rumours were for 20th june or so. It was on the 15th night that incessant rains started and the entire deluge took place on 16th and thereafter. No flying could take place on 16th and late on 17th the actual news of the extent of devastation started filtering in. Till then we were not really perturbed cos torrential rains accompanied by thunder and lightning is a norm here and not the exception and last year I was there when a cloud burst had hit Okhimath ( 3kms from our resort).
On 18th when the first survivors came in my aircraft including the SDM and the CO Guptkashi (these two had been there for two days – because they had gone to resolve the strike called by the local pandits against helicopter services) that we came to know of the horrors ( the SDM himself had climbed on the Nandi bull statue outside and clung on for dear life to its ears and a girl was on his back in the swirling waters .They survived and were witness to deaths near the VIP gate ( This year due to the rush even the complete Parikrama ( a necessary circumbalation in Lord Shiva’s temples) had been stopped and barricades put up – to cater for the heavy rush.
The losses were heavier here due to : –
LIVES – (a) Because no helicopter flights had been undertaken for the previous two days due to a strike by locals against helicopter operations. So at least 2000 extra people were there.
(b) Almost all families in the area whose children are on holidays at this time of the year send their children to the temple area to earn a few extra rupees.
MONEY– The pony, doli people and the local tradesmen deposit their money with the bigger tradesmen en-route and obtain chits for it during the season. This year the plan (believed) was to move the money down to the plains/ banks around 20 June, so a huge part of the money earned by the locals perished there.
At leas t 1.6 million people and 4,200 villages were affected by the June 16 rains and floods in four districts of the Uttarakhand state, viz. Uttarkashi, Chamoli, Rudraprayag and Garhwal. Major landslides occurred at 110 places washing out or damaging 154 bridges and 320 roads. The Indian Air Force began enormous rescue and relief operation termed as ‘Op Rahat’ on June 17 deploying 20 aircraft initially and increasing the number which quickly peaked to 44. These machines included 23 Mi-17, 11 ALH, 1 Cheetah, 1 Mi-26 Heavy Lift chopper, 3 An-32, 1 IL- 76, 1 Avro and, 3 newly-acquired C-130J Super Hercules aircraft. A total of 2,137 sorties done by the IAF and 18,424 persons airlifted (Source-Indiastrategic.in).
The factual position is known to you all – the entire village of Rambara has ceased to exist. Gaurikund and the path to the temple have taken a severe beating and inclement weather has made development work much tougher. It has very much proved the versatility and the extent to which helicopters can bring succor in the hills yet again (and of course the C- 130s – what a machine – I have seen them flying at 500 feet with the tail open to carry more load during the UN Mission in Sierra Leone- Op Khukri). The ground troops have done a fantastic job (be it Army, ITBP, Civil police, NDRF, NIM or others) and then the fliers (military and civil) pitched in wholeheartedly to greatly bring in rescue and relief to people.
I was in Guptkashi when this happened and then flew regularly to Kedarnathji to drop the teams and bring them back. The civil helicopters have worked tremendously hard (it is no mean task to fly single pilot in the hills and add to it the weather and you have a very tough concoction on your hands) – carrying valuable loads and landing at phenomenal places – the accompanying photos will tell you a part of the story. What needs to be understood is that this occurred during the pre- monsoon period and NO ONE GENERALLY flies in the hills in the monsoons – yet we ALL flew during the monsoons – half the time was spent in waiting for just that window of opportunity when the weather Gods would relent for a few hours and flying would go through.
The effort is going on very well to support the local populace with minor aberrations. I remember – I was repeatedly flying to Trijugi Narayan ( where Lord Shiva and Parvatiji got married) and landing on the road to drop rations for it and Toshi village(where there was no place to even touch down). After a couple of days despite reports of there being no requirement I was told by the local authorities to again go there (as the load was provided by a political party) and I found that there were 8 Tata -407s loaded with supplies ( I was carrying a paltry 350kg) parked at the makeshift helipad.
After a few weeks I moved to Dharchula in the Kumaon region where the Govt’s focus was on retrieving the Mansarovar Yatris- which we did later. The causalities here were not many – as the rising waters of Kaliganga had given adequate advance warning – but some villages were wiped out and some micro hydel projects simply ceased to exist. Half an entire Army unit’s buildings were wiped out at Dharchula (including the CO’s residence).
The First responders were the Army and ITBP along with the civil helicopters in the state and then the Military helicopters joined in. The causalities would have been much higher had these versatile machines not been available. Even now – we have been commandeered by the State Govt to carry out reconstruction activities.
In May a WB HC Judge visited the Kedarnath shrine and saw the plastic covers covering the shops and encroachments en-route – so the State Govt got a rap on its knuckles- so the local authorities filed an affidavit to have them removed – promptly there was a strike against it. God has removed all those encroachments – or most of them in one act.
There are enough allegations of the State Govt not doing enough, lethargy – many waiting to to make their cut, take credit etc – but there are enough stories of people doing a great job too – let me tell you of a few- Mr Purushottam – DM Dehradun volunteered (while others were hesitating to come here) along with his team. He climbed from Gaurikund to Kedaranth and took along the water supply, electricity board and other officials to see things first hand.
DIG Martolia had a tough task on his hand as the perception that it was not auspicious to stay at Kedarnathji was spreading because the Mi-17 crash had taken place while taking wood there and I had to fly back the forensic expert to Doon ( he was the only one taking DNA samples ) because his son had committed suicide . The DIG was instrumental in keeping the various teams going on top and carry out mass cremations. You all must have seen their high spirits on TV on 15 Aug. The DM Uttarkashi (Mr Prasad- I think) – this man was shuttled to all FOUR dhams within a month to look after each one of them – such is his managerial capabilities and clarity of thought and planning. Actually, the maximum damage has been in Uttarkashi district (as always) but it has been underreported due to less loss of lives.
From storytelling I shift to some idealistic issues-
1. Political agendas at play with some turning up only to take credit and others to discredit those who are doing the actual ground work and incite passions amongst the locals and pander to their vote banks.
2. Many in the capital are clueless of how tough the life is in the hills- little realizing that every day is a struggle and are interested only in the trappings of power.
3. The police have the best communication network in the region – but the most underutilized resource.
What can be done for the future –
1. The CM used a very POTENT AND POWERFUL word- HIMALAYAN TSUNAMI– I happened to be in Port Blair for two years and have seen first-hand the infrastructure developed post – Tsunami. This is the time for the Govt to open their mouth REALLY WIDE and ask for funds and create infrastructure to sustain a district independently for at least 10 days (It is normal for a district to be cut off for 10 days during monsoons).
2. Each village should have a workable helipad WITH ADEQUATE FUEL stocked up at District HQs to cater especially for the monsoon months and winters – so that every eventuality ( cloud burst, road block, landslides, avalanche, medical emergencies- fractures, hear attack, pregnancies, internal bleeding , epilepsy and the like) is handled effectively.
3. UK has two commissionerates – each should have three helicopters each (KUMAON – Pithoragarh, Gwaldham and Dharchula. GARHWAL- Joshimath, Guptkashi and Uttarkashi).
4. The UK police should have a dedicated helicopter(independent) at its disposal at Dehradun for all activities such as -NDRF, ITBP, Army support etc at short notice as FIRST RESPONDERS.
5. The roads should be world class without excessive use of explosives (resorted to by unscrupulous people to extract more stones and sell them off).
6. Initial supply sources and quantities should be identified and tied up beforehand -some districts were woefully short whereas others had surplus. As an example the expertise of people like Col Kothiyal ( NIM Comdt) must be taken first to reconstruct the cut off route such as the entire Kedarnathji path – without any red tapism.
7. A PSU (Engineers …….) has been tasked to submit a report on Kedarnathji’s reconstruction- I believe a ropeway is one- and no night halts on top (unless forced ) .
8. Crores are spent on this yatra – yet the Govt does not earn anything. So it must be taken over by the Govt and a board set up.
9. Medical support for ALL yatras is a big MUST – here it was practically absent.
10. It’s been 14 years since UK came into existence – yet the State does not have a CORE sector. It’s high time – Tourism and specifically RELIGIOUS TOURISM – got its due. Indians will do anything in the name of God- so this sector will ALWAYS grow. So, it’s high time the development is done properly to support and help it and in the process the local populace will prosper.
A SBI clerk from Dehradun retired in June and got his money in July (his inner self forced him to do something). So after contemplating for a month, bought supplies worth Rs 1.5 lac (rice, dal, cooking oil, salt, candles and match boxes) loaded it into 2 Tata 407s and set off with a retd Army Havaldar to Kalimath area. ( The Army Havaldar had suffered a bullet injury during the Kargil war rendering his shoulder partially paralyzed also belonged to the same area- his area too had suffered – but guided this gentleman to a different sub-valley – so that no one says that he was being partial to his kith and kin). They visited ALL the affected villages over 10 days – identified the houses where a family member had died – signed a slip and gave it to them. These people used to come to Guptkashi and collect items from them after showing the slip. THIS IS INDIA. Till such people reside here we will ALWAYS win and bounce back to be a BETTER nation state.
I am enclosing 10 photographs that I had taken with my mobile camera – I am writing a brief write up of each photograph – so that the reader can understand how things were and can co- relate better. I have numbered them Z 1-10 only for better understanding.
Z1- The bad weather phase was normal earlier too (before 16 june). I had to spend the night in Kedarnathji in beginning of June as the fog suddenly moved in. This was the helipad earlier and shows just how fast and dense fog can be at 11000 feet in Kedarnath Dham. You can’t see anything beyond the helipad.
Z2- This shows the tents that all the companies had for the Yatris- yet one can’t see 50 feet beyond the helipad- the Mandir is 500 m away by walk.
Z3-Another scene of the helipad- now the visibility is say 5-10m .All before 16 jun. This was 5 june.
Z4- A scene of Guptkashi- early morning sees a lot of rains- when it stops, the heating takes place and then the clouds from the hills lift up, but the heat from the river below rises up in the form of clouds and that keeps re- generating regularly hampering any flying operation. Not unusual for it to continue extensively and many a times the whole day long.
Z5- Standing with a B3 helicopter – shows the clouds rising behind me from the valley floor below.
Z6-Landing in fields in the Kalimath valley to drop supplies to the stranded villagers.
Z7-Another shot of another helipad- this village of 60 houses was totally inaccessible by road and each house in the village had suffered a death.
Z8- Would you believe- this clean river bed on the Kaliganga river – a few miles ahead of Dharchula (Kumaon) was once a thriving village called Sobla- now there is not even a trace of the settlement. Here loss of live was less – because the rising waters gave enough warning time to evacuate. We pulled out the villagers from here.
Z9- The road from Pithoragarh to Dharchula had been cut off- so we had to come to Joljibi to refuel where the state govt had asked IOC had positioned a fuel bowser. There were 2 ALH of IAF operating from here – so I had to take the volleyball court in the vicinity for refuelling and loading up rations.
Z10- The MLA along with the govt officials came here to distribute them cheques as assistance. A makeshift helipad on which the heptr can barely fit to drop supplies and evacuate people . 5-12 feb . 4-5 hrs 2 hrs halt additional second trip .