This Article is From Jun 18, 2016

Kedarnath: 3 Years After The Disaster

In June 2013, when the mountain came down tumbling across the Kedar Valley and the rivers breached their banks, places like Sonprayag - an important spot en-route to Kedarnath shrine - were completely destroyed. Most of the infrastructure including shops, hotels, rest houses, and parking lots had been swept away. An eyewitness in Sonprayag recalls, "That day, the raging Mandakini brought so much mud, silt and heavy stones with it that at many places the riverbed rose as high as 15 metres! Men, women, children, vehicles - all were buried under the tremendous amount of debris brought down by the river."

The flood of 2013, which wreaked havoc and killed thousands of people, was an outcome of the rage of the Mandakini. This river that nourishes hundreds of thousands swept away almost everything in its path in June 2013. The mountains came crashing down and there were landslides all over the valley. The state had plunged into complete chaos.

The state saw the worst of the disaster on 16 and 17 June. The official figure of the number of people dead is less than 5,000. However, relief workers and the locals - the first responders during the tragedy who played a critical role in the relief operations from day one - estimate that the number of dead may be as high as 12-15,000. Three years after the tragedy, decomposing bodies and skeletons can still be found in the heights of the Kedarnath hills. The several thousand still missing remain buried in the debris of the mountains or they were swept away by the mighty river waters.

Kedarnath is now recovering from the disaster but requires careful construction.

Life, nevertheless, goes on. A few months after this terrible disaster, the rebuilding of Kedarnath began. Nobody had ever imagined that the Kedarnath Yatra would resume the very next year after the calamity. But it happened and there were many reasons behind it. This Himalayan area is entirely dependent on tourism, particularly religious tourism, for its livelihood. The six-month-long yatra season is the backbone of the state's economy. It provides financial sustenance to the locals who live en-route to Kedarnath. So it was imperative for the government to restart this yatra as soon as possible; to build up the confidence of the bereaved communities and to help them with their livelihood again.

Another reason was political. The government of Uttarakhand saw a change of guard within months of the tragedy. The then chief minister Vijay Bahuguna - who was considered to have no grassroots understanding of the state and no connect with the common people of Uttarakhand - was replaced by a more widely accepted and grounded leader, Harish Rawat. The season for the yatra was fast approaching and so was the general election of 2014. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was busy with a fiery campaign under the leadership of its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. So Rawat had the political expediency to show his opponents that his government could perform to serve the people.

In the backdrop of these circumstances, the reconstruction of the Kedarnath valley began and the story of its rebuilding is nothing short of remarkable. Due to the disaster, ground contact to and from Kedarnath had completely severed. At several places, the mountain had caved in, mostly obliterating the higher reaches. The pathways were either broken, demolished or completely washed out. So, restoring the Kedarnath Yatra would be possible only after rebuilding the ground route.

Lencholi - the new resting camp to substitute Rambada which was wiped out during floods in 2013.

But who would take on this Herculean task to rebuild Kedarnath - located at almost 12,000 feet, where temperatures often dropped well below zero degree? The job of building an alternative route was almost like moving an entire mountain. No government agency had the skills or expertise to handle this task in such a treacherous terrain. The government finally turned to the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), a prestigious Himalayan institute based in Uttarkashi, to rebuild Kedarnath. In fact, volunteers from NIM were among the first responders to the tragedy, saving hundreds of lives and helping with the rescue and rehabilitation work.

The task was handed over to NIM officially on 11 March 2014. The institute began its work within a week. The director, Col Ajay Kothiyal, deployed a team of 300 trained men who worked day and night to reconstruct the Kedarnath town, and rebuild the crucial route between Rambara and the holy shrine. However, the work needed to be completed within a very tight deadline, and so it was divided into two parts along the 22 kilometre-long hilly stretch from Sonprayag to Kedarnath - one part to Rambara and another from Rambara to the Kedarnath shrine. NIM was assigned to build the latter part in the higher reaches, which were more difficult access and therefore, a more arduous task. Rebuilding the stretch between Sonprayag and Rambara was handed over to government agencies.

The floods and landslides had wrecked the pedestrian route above Rambara and there was no rebuilding possible on this side of the hill at all. So the team from NIM altered the route and started reconstruction on the opposite side of the mountain. A temporary bridge was built on the river at Rambara to transport the building material, stones and machinery like JCBs, small tractors and all-terrain vehicles. It was not easy to move the machinery and other heavy goods to the heights of Kedarnath, so between April and August, NIM built eight big and small bridges. In July that year, two cantilever bridges were mounted on the river in less than three weeks! The volunteers of NIM had to face a number of problems especially in winters when the snow level rose - 12 to 14 feet high sometimes - and the bone-chilling cold made it difficult to move their hands. Diesel would freeze and every morning they would burn jute bags under the vehicles' tanks to melt the frozen fuel.

The biggest transport helicopter of the Indian Air Force, Mi-26, landed at Kedarnath on 6 Jan 2015 on a specially-built helipad creating history.

In these inhospitable conditions, the men needed bigger and mightier machines to quicken the pace of work. Ordinary helicopters simply couldn't have done the job. A beast of a chopper was required, which only the Indian Air Force could provide. There was, however, a lot of risk involved in it. The valley was not very wide and the weather was highly unpredictable. Landing in the absence of a proper helipad wasn't possible at all.  

Nevertheless, history was created on 6 January 2015 when the biggest transport helicopter of the Indian Air Force, Mi-26, landed on a specially built helipad in Kedarnath - 450 feet long and 150 feet wide. It was perhaps for the first time in the history of the Indian forces that an Mi-26 helicopter landed at such a height. In the next twelve days, the Mi-26 did sixteen sorties transporting several machines, all of which weighed 125 tonnes in all!

The Kedarnath floods had left many weak, broken and dilapidated structures in front of the main shrine. These included shops, hotels and homes, and were government as well as private structures. They had to be demolished and the area had to be cleared for a new plan. The work was carried out using hammers and iron rods, because any blasting to raze these shops and houses may have caused serious damage to the 1,200-year-old Kedarnath shrine.

Aerial view of Kedarnath after recovering from the disaster.

Thanks to these efforts, within three years of the calamity, the more than 20-kilometre-long route to the temple town from Sonprayag wears a fresh look today. New resting camps have come up and a few older ones have vanished. A few kilometres from Gaurikund, there lies a newly built Junglechatti, which didn't have the kind of infrastructure it has today. But there is no Rambara any more. Instead, a large, newly-built pilgrim camp, Lencholi, has come up, just a few kilometres before the shrine of Kedarnath - with new huts, shops and public facilities.

Despite these remarkable efforts, some serious concerns about the structures erected now cannot be ignored. Particularly the construction of huge, embankment structures such as ghats, protection walls, etc., may cause some serious problems in future. The carrying capacity of this fragile terrain doesn't allow for big structures. The Kedarnath township is built on thick moraine, which was deposited by the glaciers few thousand years ago. After the disaster, the newly deposited morainic debris is still unconsolidated and any big construction work on this thick, loose sedimentary deposit may have tragic results, much like what happened in 2013. Well-known geologist and earth scientist Navin Juyal who works with the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, explained why this construction could be dangerous, "It all depends on how we handle this loose surface. If we start heavy construction on this sediment, without reinforcing it, even if there is no disaster in the future, we could face a lot of problems. The buildings can still collapse because of the phenomenon called "solifluction" where the snow melts in the summers and a process called creeping of the soil may happen due to this frost action." The problem is further magnified by the scouring action of high-energy rivers from both the sides of the township, he added.

Though Kedarnath has seen reconstruction on a massive scale, the futures of the people who live in the hills still remain uncertain. The affected families were paid some compensation but in the absence of adequate rehabilitation and a steady employment scheme, the money is running out fast. Some people have managed to pull their lives along, but most who lost their homes and shops have nowhere to go.

The life of small towns along the route to Kedarnath thrived on the banks of Mandakini, but the river wreaked so much havoc during the disaster that many find it hard to rebuild their lives again. There are hundreds of houses and shops that line the roads on the way to Guptkashi, which are still highly at risk. The mindless blasting during the construction of roads has made some structures even more vulnerable. These will have to be demolished anyway to make the habitation secure.

(Hridayesh Joshi is Senior Editor, National Affairs of NDTV India. He was among the first journalists to reach Kedarnath in 2013 when the calamity struck. His book "Rage of The River, The Untold Story of the Kedarnath Disaster" was published by Penguin India recently.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.