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Children most at risk in Uttarakhand

Jul 03, 2013

As the focus now shifts from the pilgrims to the communities in the flood-hit Uttarakhand, more and more stories about the plight of families – and children – are coming to the fore, writes Devendra Tak.

Uttarakhand Children

Children are the most at risk in Uttarakhand but as one travels in the areas which still have road access one doesn’t see many of them. The reason is straightforward: most families have been affected in one way or another, either they have lost a male member who was working in the higher reaches of Badrinath or Kedarnath or they have suffered damage or destruction of their property and household assets.

In order to get their lives back on track, such families have moved their children to the care of family and friends who live in areas where the tragedy did not strike. Also, currently, schools and colleges are closed (expected to reopen soon in parts of the state which were not very affected).

Rudraprayag is at a height and there have not been reports of major damage in the township. From there, to travel to Tilwara village – which is the gateway to the disasters in Badrinath and Kedarnath, one cannot take the highway, since the route is being restored as parts of the hillside and riverbanks have taken parts of the road with them into the Mandakini river. To reach Tilwara one has to take an irregular road up the mountain, which is not suitable for large vehicles. Therefore supply of fresh vegetables, fruits and other essential items has been affected.

In Tilwara and beyond up the Mandakini river, there are continuous scenes of destruction – of bridges, homes, offices, markets, schools and everything else that man has created. Save the Children has been among the first NGOs to provide relief to families. Thanks to the generous support from Care Today, Save the Children distributed relief to 47 families affected by the Uttarakhand floods on 30 June. The relief distribution was done at Silli Village in Agastyamuni Block of Rudraprayag district. The children headed households, single woman households, elderly and physically challenged were given priority while preparing the list of affected people. 253 more kits will be distributed in the coming week. The kits (per family) distributed were: Hygiene kit -- which includes bucket (with lid), mug, toothpaste, toothbrush (3 for adults, 3 for children), washing soap, bath soap (two), jug; Food basket – which includes rice (30 kg), dal/lentils (5 kgs), wheat flour (10 kg), sugar (2 kg), cooking oil (3 litres), salt (1 kg), mixed masalas; 2 tarpaulin sheets; and 2 blankets per family.

A few children accompanied their parents (mostly mothers/widows). While a few widows broke down while receiving the relief items, the children looked too stunned to even express their emotions. In Vijaynagar, which is a village ahead of Silli and is currently the last point accessible by road, I had earlier met with a father and the three children, who he was escorting to the relative safety of his in-laws house. The four of them had trekked 20-odd kms in the mountains, leaving behind his wife and an infant child. When the heavens opened up like never before, he was away in the mountains where he worked in a hotel. By the time he reached home, while his wife had ensured the safety of the children and their cow, their home was totally destroyed. When I asked him how the children were coping with the disaster, he simply stated, “All of them scream at night, which is something they never did before”. I asked his son what he wanted right now and he replied, “A home -- somewhere where I can be safe from floods and stay with my parents”.

In Tilwara and Vijaynagar (Saraswati Sishu Mandir), schools have been completely washed away and en route one can notice the Takshila High School, that was flooded and now – because the river level has risen almost 20 metres due to the silt – is in permanent danger of being flooded whenever there is heavy rain. It will take months to restore schools that have been badly damaged or completely destroyed and, moreover, since many of these schools are being used as relief centres and camps for affected people, it will be a while before school schedules return to normal.

In Silli village, there is a girl’s college which is being used for refuge by over 25 families. I met the Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Kedarnath, Shailarani Rawat, there and asked her what were the needs of the affected people and, in particular, the children. “There is a huge amount of rations, blankets, biscuits and water bottles reaching the relief centres but what we need more are clothes, utensils and cooking stoves. What children will need in the coming months would be school uniforms and textbooks,” she says.

Moving along the Agastyamuni stretch, I find that there is another relief distribution being conducted on the street by a local committee where I meet a woman who had come looking for relief with her young daughter. She has been told that her name is not on the list of beneficiaries. I guide her to the girl’s college campus. Information, about where to access aid and the entitlements of those affected, is another problem, which is as important as knowing what relief items are required and where these should be distributed.

As the focus now shifts from the pilgrims to the communities, more and more stories about the plight of families – and children – are coming to the fore. Protection of children is going to be vital, especially since many male members who were working Badrinath and Kedarnath won’t be coming back home to safeguard their loved ones. When the children return for school, psycho-social support for them would be critical, and this would include peer interactions which concepts such as Save the Children’s Child-Friendly Spaces can facilitate. Since parents need to focus on what needs to be done to cope with the crisis, such a facility -- which ensures protection and care of children has proven to be very useful. Families which have been driven into poverty may have to struggle for a long time to get back to their normal lives – and until then, they and the children are not going to be out of danger.

For those who think that the tragedy is over, it is important to remember that for the families and children who have been affected, the tragedy has – in fact – just started.

(Devendra Tak is the National Manager – Media & Communication with Save the Children.)

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