Kedarnath calling….

Kedarnath calling….

The inflow of tourists to Kedarnath, one of the 12 ‘Jyotirlingas’ located at the height of 3581 meters from the sea level, has more than doubled from last year, but these figures are nowhere near the pre-2013 era.

 By Sandeep Joshi

KEDARNATH: Two years after the devastating flash floods caused havoc in the Garhwal Himalayas in Uttarakhand, life has never been the same for those whose livelihood depended on the ‘yatra’ to the holy shrine of Kedarnath nestled among the snow-capped mountains. Still trying to recover from the losses they suffered due to the deluge, people are a bit relieved that pilgrims have started to return albeit in small numbers compared to the pre-2013 period.

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Back to business…

Tell tale signs of massive disaster that hit the region following incessant rains and cloud burst between June 15 and 17 two years ago are visible all along the route between Rishikesh and Sonprayag, from where the arduous trek to the Kedarnath temple begins. Barring four-five places, the entire 200-km plus stretch of road has now been made motorable by the Border Roads Organisation, but reconstruction work in towns like Srinagar, Augustmuni, Tilwara, Ukhimath and Guptkashi still continues.

The inflow of tourists to Kedarnath, one of the 12 ‘Jyotirlingas’ located at the height of 3581 meters from the sea level, has more than doubled from last year, but these figures are nowhere near the pre-2013 era. For instance, in 2011 and 2012 over 5.71 lakh and 5.83 lakh people visited the temple built over a thousand year ago and is dedicated to Lord Shiva, respectively. It then fell to 3.12-lakh in 2013 before the ‘yatra’ was halted mid-way due to the tragedy. Last year just 40,832 pilgrims reached the shrine, which was then far from ready for the visitors as the government authorities struggled to clear debris and make trekking path to the shrine. But this year over 97,000 people have visited Kedarnath so far, and this number could double till the ‘yatra’ ends in October.

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Old Kedarnath route that was washed away due to flash floods in June 2013

“It will take at least another couple of years before the stree am of visitors to the Kedarnath shrine is back to its original form. It is due to the efforts of the government authorities to build up basic infrastructure at the Kedarnath township by putting up tents and medical facilities that people havstarted coming back. However, visitors are still reluctant to trek to the shrine and helicopter service has become a more acceptable mode of transport as the entire ‘darshan’ trip that begins from Phata, just before Sonprayag from where the trek now commences, takes less than three hours, including 15 minute round-trip on the chopper,” says Vijay Prakash, one of the priests at the shrine. There are 10 companies that provide helicopter service to Kedarnath, while the government-operator Pawan Hans even offer a charter service to the shrine from Dehradun.

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Remembering those who died in 2013 floods

The state government has been up to the task providing all necessary information to visitors so that they could approach appropriate authorities during emergency. For instance, an elaborate handbill is being distributed to pilgrims during their biometric registration that talks about medical centres and relief and rescue units that have come along the ‘yatra’ route to all the four ‘dhams’ – Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri. In the Kedarnath route alone, biometric data of pilgrims is being taken at four places where their medical tests are also being conducted. A total of 11 ambulances have been provided along the Kedarnath route, while the 21-km-long trekking route to the Kedarnath shrine now has 12 medical relief points where arrangements have also been made for stay of pilgrims and tourists in case the ‘yatra’ is stopped due to bad weather or other emergency.

While the ‘yatra’ is coming back on track, people who have lost their loved ones are still finding it hard to come to terms with the tragedy. There are villages after villages in the Kedar valley that saw their residents falling prey to the nature’s fury. They used to do odd jobs in Kedarnath and along the ‘yatra’ route — from serving as priests to providing porter service and working in shops and eating joints all along the old trekking path to the shrine most of which was washed away in the floods.

In the Ukhimath Tehsil alone 584 people lost their lives, while the area now has 296 widows whose husbands were killed in the tragedy. Though the government gave them monetary compensation and several NGOs came forward to help them, the void left due the departure of their soul mates will remain forever. “There are several young widows in their 20s and early 30s, but social mores are such in our closely knit society that their remarriage is out of question…They will be forced to live a lonely life with just one aim – to see their children settle down well in life. This has now led to several widows move to cities like Dehradun, Roorkee and Haridwar from these remote locations so that their kids can get quality education and they can do odd jobs to eke out a living,” says Keshav Tiwari, ex-pradhan of Divli-Bhanigram, which is also infamously known as “village of widows’’ as 32 women of the village lost their husbands in the disaster.

Widows of Divli-Bhanigram consider themselves as “lucky” to have got support of Delhi-based NGO Sulabh International which is giving a monthly stipend to them and their kids besides running a vocational training centre for them and a computer centre for the kids of the village. “But others are not that lucky as the government seems to have conveniently forgotten them. No major initiative has been announced by the government and it is the strong social support system that still prevails in this part of the world is helping them survive,” Mr. Tiwari adds.

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Search for missing ones continues till date…

Talking about survival, there are some who have not lost all hope to find missing survivors and have put in posters at Kedarnath and major points of towns and villages that fall on the “yatra” route hoping to find their loved ones. People from as far as Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh have put in fresh posters about missing people reminding visitors and the authorities that the final death toll is yet to come. While the government figure put the death toll at over 5,700, locals who saw the tragedy unfold put it at over 15,000.


 

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