Flood-hit Indians struggle to rebuild lives in the “Land of the Gods”

by Nita Bhalla | @nitabhalla | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 25 July 2013 11:22 GMT

A woman displaced by floods sits in a relief camp in the Indian town of Joshimath, a month after flash floods and landslides in the northern state of Uttarakhand stripped tens of thousands of their farmland or income. Photo July 14, 2013, Nita Bhalla/Thomson Reuters Foundation

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Tens of thousands in mountainous northern India, their homes and lands swept away by last month's floods and landslides, face a long struggle to rebuild their lives.

JOSHIMATH, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When the floodwater began pouring into their homes on the evening of June 16, the inhabitants of Pulma and Bhyundar villages in the Indian Himalayas could do nothing but run.

The 500 or so villagers trekked up a nearby mountain, sheltering in a forest for almost two days without food and water until they saw Indian Air Force helicopters overhead and managed to signal for help.

Now, packed into a dilapidated guesthouse-turned-relief-camp in Joshimath town, some of the survivors of the deadliest floods recorded in India’s Uttarakhand region face a new hurdle in their struggle for survival.

“We heard our neighbours screaming that the river was coming to take us away,” said 38-year-old Kalpana Rawat, a housewife and mother, sitting in a room crowded with other women and children.

 “There was no time. The houses were starting to get flooded, so we just left everything. There is nothing left there now – our houses have gone, our fields have gone and now there is no work in the towns.”

The unprecedented rainfall last month, which wreaked havoc across the region, making rivers overflow and setting off massive landslides, killed almost 6,000 people. Two million people, one-fifth of Uttarakhand’s population, have had their lives disrupted by the devastation.  

One month on, as news of the disaster fades from the headlines of national newspapers and television channels, tens of thousands of survivors – left without homes or  work – are trying to cope with the impact of the calamity.

Subsistence farmers have suffered huge losses, their fields of wheat and potatoes swept away by the deluge.  Aid groups say almost 9,000 cows and other livestock have perished, and there is little fodder for the few remaining animals.


Even more worrying is that the main source of income for many families – the once-thriving religious tourism industry - has dried up. 

Many hotels and restaurants built on river banks collapsed into the rushing waters, while others were buried under landslides. It could take months, if not longer, for the sector to recover.

“Livelihoods have been badly impacted in affected villages, requiring the development of strategies for short, medium and long term support for recovery of livelihoods and services, and rehabilitation of infrastructure,” said a recent assessment from Sphere India, a coalition of national and international aid groups which are working in the area.

For thousands of years, pilgrims have flocked to Uttarakhand’s majestic Himalayan mountains, drawn by the ancient Hindu belief that it was here that deities such as Lord Shiva and Vishnu resided. 

The region, with its lush green valleys dotted with countless temples and shrines, is often referred to in Hinduism as “Dev Bhoomi” or the “Land of the Gods.”

As a result, the popular pilgrimage route known as the "Char Dham Yatra”, consisting of the four temple towns of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri, attracts hundreds of thousands of devotees annually, all seeking salvation and a guaranteed place in heaven.

Now all four shrines, as well as a popular Sikh temple, the Hemkund Sahib, have been closed down, and the numerous small towns and villages that line the main 645 km (400 mile) Char Dham route are like ghost towns.

“It feels like a curfew in some of these areas,” said Avinash Kumar Singh, Save the Children’s programme coordinator in Chamoli district.

“As you drive through, you see the guest houses and lodges, tea-shops and restaurants – which would have been bustling at this time of year – are now deserted,” Kumar said.

Thousands of informal workers, such as waiters in small roadside restaurants and porters who would carry the elderly, sick and children up to the shrines on stretchers or mules, have no means of earning a livelihood now, he says.

Hotel owners and shopkeepers say their only revenue these days is from aid workers, government officials, journalists and service personnel deployed after the disaster.


A survey by the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimated that the tourism industry has suffered losses of 120 billion rupees ($2 billion).

 “My economy rests on tourism. Tourism is the backbone … it makes up 37 percent of my GDP,” Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

“As a result of this disaster, the entire state’s tourism sector has been affected. Even areas where there has been no damage such as some hill stations, tourists are not coming.”

Bahuguna’s government has announced financial compensation for people who have had their homes damaged or destroyed, and money for livestock losses.

But aid agencies say there has been little mention of how farmers whose land was swept away by the floods, or those working in the tourism sector, will be rehabilitated.

Cash-for-work schemes, such as paying people to help in reconstruction work or to distribute aid, would put some money in people’s pockets, and ensure food security for the next three to six months, aid groups say.

But long-term plans for relocating people whose villages and land have been destroyed need to be set out and implemented as soon as possible.

Back at the relief camp in Joshimath, Kalpana Rawat lays down around 20 mattresses on the floor of a large room as the displaced villagers settle down for the night.

“We have been waiting here for a month now. Twenty of us sharing a room in this cramped place,” said Kalpana.

“We don’t know where the next meal is coming from … but the worst part is, I don’t know what to tell my children when they ask me when we will be going home.”

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