Bhimtal is beautiful. Nestled in the hills just above Corbett Park and just below the popular hill station of Nainital, it is appropriately situated indeed. You can scoot off to Ranikhet or Almora, or you can scooter across to Saat-taal or Naukuchia-taal. I did so the other weekend as well. But I was reminded a bitter lesson; that when the Gods hit home, they hit rather hard. And they have been hitting very, very hard for the last few weeks.
“Bijli nahin hai paanch din se. Paani bhi nahin hai. (There is no electricity or water for the last five days). I am talking to you on a phone, since I have to use my car battery to charge the phone, since nothing else works. I am the lucky one, by the way, for most cars are now floating in nullahs (ditches).” This statement that came from my childhood friend a.k.a. near-brother Kunwar Manoj Rana may be tough. But Kunwar Saheb is a historical Delhi-ite –for that crime alone, his car has been ravaged (scratched) by angry residents of Uttarakhand, citing angst over visitors from other states. This despite that Kunwar ji has been there for years and is anything but a floozy.
Only idiots go to places best avoided. Nonetheless, I ventured out to a forbidden land. Well, I paid the price for it. Nature stepped in, asking me to keep a check on my misdemeanors. I paid the toll. I then prayed.
The Himalayas are no stranger to disasters, which are a down-to-earth extrapolation of the natural processes that characterize the region. The landscape maintains a fractured balance between frictional and gravitational forces that hold and tend to drift the components of the topography, sometimes cataclysmically. Therein lies a quick historical memoir of Uttarakhand alone over the last decade. Year 2013 saw a cloudburst that wiped off a large part of the state and the economy. This year itself, our very own UK suffered the loss of over 72 lives after a glacial outburst in the Rishi Ganga River in Chamoli district. Before that, the state witnessed terrible destruction by forest fires in Years 2016 and 2020. Earlier still, Uttarakhand brings back memories from the 1990s, a devastating year when the Uttarkashi earthquake killed 768 and caused widespread destruction and mayhem. That was followed by the Malpa landslide in 1998 and the Chamoli earthquake in 1999, killing 238 and 103 people, respectively.
Sadly, Uttarakhand is only one among many states in the Himalayan region facing this crisis. Others such as Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and the hilly districts of West Bengal are all prone to similar natural disasters. Human casualties are the most profound losses in a catastrophe of this nature, but the destruction of properties makes the life of those that survive even tougher.
Yes, nature’s brutal onslaught has oft-pierced our hearts, as it does today, but it appears that there is little that we have learnt as an entity. The effects and after-effects of these disasters are still being only marginally mitigated, if at all, slammed as we are incessantly by nature’s wrath. The number of casualties in the recent floods in Uttarakhand and adjoining areas in Nepal, as also down south in Kerala has crossed the 180-mark – with 88 casualties in Nepal, at least 55 in Uttarakhand and 42 in Kerala alone.
It is a cascade of tragedy that continues to defy. Day after day, we match our wits and sensibilities to battle disasters that have manifested themselves across our country over the past few years, and astounded us over the last few weeks. The latest is the misery that we witness in Uttarakhand and Kerala, the freshest wounds that have ripped apart our collective feeling of peace and pushed us yet again into dread and temerity. It is a travesty that we brace ourselves for repeated catastrophes. As is wont, natural processes are getting off-track and turning into disasters, killing our own and causing large-scale distress. The saddest part is that we are now, as a people and a populace, becoming immune and used to such disasters – normalization if you will, and our sinking feelings be damned.
Somehow, though, the rancor and candor are dying speechlessly, despite a recent report that established a link between recurring natural disasters and Climate Change, brutally informing us that it is mankind that is solely responsible for the catastrophe we find ourselves in. The sudden upsurge in disasters in the Himalayas and the steps being taken to prevent and mitigate them are telling indicators.
So what do we do? Let’s head back to my brother friend, Kunwar Manoj Rana, who has been a ready witness, and a bold and fearless narrator of the facts on the ground, telling them as they unfold, sitting inside his car and telling all. “Koi nahin poochchta (nobody cares),” he tells me. “We had no foodstuff – not even basic items like milk, break and eggs for days – but the authorities were busy cleaning up a small part of the mess to cater to the visit of the Chief Minister by helicopter. While people scrounged around to save whatever was left, lapping up their destroyed clothes and furniture, essential life-saving equipment was diverted to cater to a VIP visit for inspection. We will never learn or really care.”
Are my words and observations harsh? I shall leave that for you to decide. What I do know is that silly I ventured into this verdant and bucolic unknown at the height of the monsoon season. I paid a small price, but was lucky enough to retreat to safer grounds before things truly hit the fan. Others haven’t been as lucky, as YouTube videos show us in graphic detail. People have lost their entire belongings and life’s earnings. Others have lost the trails that led to their homes; while others still have lost their entire yield of crop, as entire mountainsides have slithered to the foothills.
Mind you, those who have lost all these material things are the lucky ones, for countless many have lost their lives. Paradoxically, we don’t talk about these things, buried or floating bodies and mangled, tormented lives. The Badrinath disaster was covered a few years back with gusto and brouhaha – this once, even the media has decided to let this one go largely unnoticed. Somehow, we are losing our basic code of ethics. Somehow still, we need to dig deep and find it again, before we are chastised for being less than human. Or should it be very human and realistic, where we care only for ourselves? Once again, I shall let you decide.
(The author is a communications consultant and a clinical analyst)