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Life after cloudburst not easy for hill women in India

May 05, 2015

Hill women of Uttarakhand struggle to rebuild life after the cloudburst that devastated lives around one-and-a-half years back, writes Chetna Verma.

Rishikesh: In mid-June 2013, the Himalayan valley was wrecked beyond recognition by a natural disaster. Every newspaper and television channel had devoted reams of newsprint and hours of air time to the coverage of the flash floods that ripped through Kedarnath in Uttarakhand.

The waters had been unstoppable, ruthlessly destroying everything that came in its way. The devastation had evoked a sense of loss within every horrified citizen, as s/he watched the mayhem unfold. As soon as the roads became accessible, various concerned groups – relief workers, donors, national and international NGOs and the media – headed to the ravaged Garhwal region.

As ordinary people struggled for survival, those who came in to help them rebuild their lives displayed rare commitment and courage to get the difficult task underway. Sadly, all the well-intended interventions were as short-lived as any clichéd breaking news.

Today, the situation is such that those who stayed back to work with the affected people warn visiting journalists and social workers to be careful while interacting with the community. “They are hurt. They are fed up of answering repeated questions, listening to promises that are not meant to be fulfilled,” shares Anand Sharma, Project Head, SEEDS, a non-profit working for the rehabilitation of schools in Rudraprayag and Chamoli Districts, the worst affected in the disaster.

And yet, quite remarkably, the locals, especially the women, seem to forgive and shed the bitter baggage as soon as they see a stranger standing outside their homes, welcoming them with sunshine smiles.

In Shila Amrapuri village of Rudraprayag district, located 140 kilometres from Rishikesh, a bunch of women sitting outside the house of the oldest woman in the hamlet look confused as one asks them to share the top five problems they believe have emerged ever since the disaster struck. “Wahi sadak, pani, bijli, aur kya… (It’s the same old issues of roads, water and electricity)! Earlier, the situation didn’t seem so dire because we had adjusted our ways to resources available to us. But life has become all the more difficult nowadays,” says Gundi Devi, 54, a widow. Pointing towards a narrow dirt track she adds, “We have to travel on this serpentine trail for half an hour to get water for our daily use. We fall, get up and run on the same path.”

Wasn’t sourcing water always this tough in the hills? “Before the floods, we would walk on a finely carved path that we were all quite familiar with. The flood waters have destroyed everything and now we have walk on an unknown path that offers no help. It’s not like we do not have pipelines, but there is no water supply. Hand pumps, too, are of no use as they throw up filthy ground water since after the disaster,” rues the mother-of-two. As one listens to all this, one can’t help but wonder how much sharing these critical problems with a stranger would be of help to them.

Anita Devi, 37, is quick to add, “Before the disaster, our day used to begin at five in the morning. After sending off our children to school and husband to work, we could easily finish our household chores and even get some time to relax. Things have changed drastically around here.”

One of the changes that everyone has yet to get accustomed to, even after one-and-a-half years have gone by, is the loss of the bridge that used to connect Shila Amrapuri to the nearest town as well as other villages in the area.

After the structure was destroyed in the floods the government has provided motor and manual cables to facilitate connectivity but they are finding it hard to adjust. “We have to make sure that our children are safe. I accompany my children to school because the fear of losing them once during the floods was enough. Motor cables can carry four persons at a time. Many a time we use the manual cable – it is nothing but a wooden cradle balanced hazardously on two cables. Many people from our village have got injured. Just yesterday, a woman fell off while crossing the river. Luckily, she did not die like many others before her, but she nonetheless will be bed ridden for long,” says a worried Anita.

If such is the situation of healthy folks, how do the pregnant women and those ailing manage?

“We carry them on cots like they do in every mountainous region. In case of a pregnant woman, if everything goes well and they are lucky, both mother and child survive. But there are less chances of that happening,” points out Pushpa Devi, 50, an industrious homemaker. She goes on to inform that earlier the bridge used to save them a lot of time as they made their way to the hospital in Rudraprayag although both time and effort have doubled now.

In any case, for the inhabitants of Shila Amrapuri everything lies on the other side – markets, banks, schools, colleges and hospitals. These women risk their lives every time they cross this river. “The men leave in the morning and return only by sun down. The responsibility of everything, from dropping and picking our children from schools to buying household goods, medicines for family and taking care of the livestock, falls squarely on us,” says Pushpa Devi.

A cable wire certainly does not seem to be the ideal solution for their mobility issues – in fact, it is dangerous to let people fend for themselves this way. It has been over 18 months but the construction of the bridge hasn’t even started. “The government has sanctioned funds for the bridge and has opened bids for the tender. But when this work will take off and give villagers relief is anybody’s guess,” points out another local resident in a dejected tone.

“We are living under a lot of tension and pressure. Mother Nature is already upset with us… we have destroyed our natural wealth and are now blaming God for it. Whatever we are facing presently – an untimely monsoon, unexpected snowfall, flashfloods or, as the educated people call it, the effects of climate change – it is all because of our greed for ‘development’. We wish we could have done it the way it suits our environment and not the other way round,” says Gundi Devi, with the hope that one day her community will get back what it has lost.

(The writer is a development journalist based in Delhi. This article is part of her work under National Media Fellowship awarded by National Media Foundation.)

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