Hemkund Sahib Route Devastated by Floods
Some Casualties, Many Stranded
By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Monday, July 08, 2013 | 03:13 pm
About 10,000 lives have been lost since mid June from torrential rains and flash flooding of areas near Hemkund Sahib, including Gobind Ghat, where vehicles park and travelers continue up to the gurdwara by a footpath, a New York-based Sikh humanitarian group said.
The upper snow-covered Himalayan territories are very remote and difficult to access. Several religious sites are situated in that region, including Gurdwara Hemkund Sahib, the only Sikh site, which open to the public during the summer months when the weather is more temperate.
The route to these religious sites begins in Delhi, on Delhi Road, and continues northeast through Haridwar and Rishikesh, the town famous for its yogis. Delhi Road splits several times into smaller roads that extend northward. At Rudraprayag, it splits into Kedarnath Road, which leads to Gaurikund and Kedarnath, Hindu pilgrimage site about 30 miles west of Hemkund Sahib.
Kedarnath was the most severely devastated and sustained the heaviest loss of lives when a large glacier melted from the heavy rains and flooded the Mandakini River. Towns downstream of Kedarnath, including Gaurikund and Rudraprayag, also were sustained heavy damage.
From Rudraprayag, Delhi Road winds east and then north to Joshimath and Gobind Ghat, and on to Badrinath, another Hindu pilgrimage site that was devastated.
There is no road for vehicles to Hemkund Sahib. All cars and busses and their drivers park for at least three days at Gobind Ghat and wait for their passengers to return. Devotees normally stay at Gobind Ghat overnight and begin the daylong trek in the early morning on the switchbacks of Hemkund Sahib Road, which is essentially a footpath, to Gobind Dham. They again stay overnight at Gobind Dham and continue to Hemkund Sahib early the next morning and then back to Gobind Dham by evening.
“Never was it thought that rains will play havoc,” said Amitoj Singh, a United Sikhs blogger, in his July 8 report from India. “Though this area is famous for landslides… this was phenomenal.
“In a flash hundreds were literally swept away by the flow.”
The Hemkund Sahib route was spared from the monumental loss of life and property, but the situation still is serious.
Gobind Ghat, at the convergence of the Alaknanda and Lakshman Rivers, and surrounding municipalities, sustained heavy damage to their transportation routes, which greatly curtailed relief efforts, Jatinder Singh, United Sikhs director, told SikhNN from New York.
Hemkund Sahib management reports only few casualties and little damage to the gurdwara, he said. One of the devotees from Gobind Dham told United Sikhs that many people were rescued from the calamity and taken to shelters. But Gobind Ghat may have sustained the worst damage on that route, and is in need of major repairs.
“The entire parking lot was filled with cars and busses, and the whole parking lot was gone in the floods,” Jatinder Singh said. “The river filled up and (also) ended up breaking the main bridge and the building next to it. Part of the gurdwara (at Gobind Ghat) collapsed, including the langar hall, which collapsed into the river.” Hemkund Sahib Road, the footpath, is badly broken or maybe gone.
United Sikhs volunteers set up a base camp for the rescue operation, on June 18, in Rishikesh. Funds were sent from the United States for relief supplies, Jatinder Singh said. Local members recruited volunteers form Delhi, Punjab and other parts of India. They bought water bottles, food and medical supplies for more than a thousand devotees and headed to Joshimath. Relief workers could not go any further, he said. The surging river waters washed all roads and bridges away, and hiking up with supplies was impossible. They also rented 10 minivans to transport survivors.
About 15 volunteers were divided into three groups to cover different areas of the city. “You can’t just sit in one spot,” Jatinder Singh said. In their experience in providing relief to victims of Hurricane Sandy, in October 2012, which devastated parts of New York and New Jersey, United Sikhs volunteers learned that setting up one spot for langar seva was not as effective. With chaos everywhere, “people don’t know where food being served,” he said. Volunteers cooked langar for people who had not eaten a hot meal for days. They served 30,000 meals in two weeks.
Heavy rains in mid June, nearly four times that of an average monsoon, brought heavy floods to the northern Indian states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, and Western Nepal. And Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and some parts of Tibet experienced acute rainfall, Indian newspapers reported.
“Everything started with never ending (rain), which got heavier,” Amitoj Singh reported. “And in moments, the flow in the local rivers got wild, really wild. In a matter of hours, the red alert had sound in the area.”
By the time the warning reached the holy shrines, it was too late, he said. Thousands of devotees were left stranded and searching for a place safe from the surging waters. Some survivors from Badrinath and Kedarnath told United Sikhs they waited more than two week to be rescued.
“In a flash, hundreds were literally swept away by the flow,” he said. The Indo-Tibetan Border Police and the Indian armed forces airlifted and evacuated survivors to Joshimath. From there, survivors traveled to Rishikesh where they waited for hours to board busses to go home.
The first survivors from the Gobind Ghat-Gobind Dham-Hemkund Sahib route arrived at the Rishikesh gurdwara more than a month after the cloud bursts. They had been without food and water for days.
“Their stor(ies) of how they came down was indeed hair-raising,” Amitoj Singh said.
More than 10,000 people are believed to have died in the natural disaster, Jatinder Singh said. And property damage is expected to reach into hundreds of millions of dollars.
Local authorities could have warned travelers and avoided the high casualties, he added. The Indian Army is stationed there, on the border. They track the weather.
“The worst part is that people starting looting,” he said. According to Indian news media, storeowners were charging Rs. 1,000 for a packet of biscuit. People were stealing jewelry from dead people by cutting off their finger. And some Army personnel were asking for bribes from survivors to transport them out of the devastated area.
“The only people helping there were the Sikhs – really, truly helping them,” Jatinder Singh said.
After receiving emergency supplies, survivors left Joshimath in good health and spirits, he said. But there are many, especially the local residents, in need of help.
Relatives of the missing poured into Rishikesh but there was no news of those stuck in the hills, Amitoj said. United Sikhs set up a help desk at the Rishikesh bus stand where they recorded information into a database of missing persons. The list was given to local authorities that still are conducting search and rescue efforts.
“Circumstances were indeed horrifying for the survivors, as well as for those persons who were waiting for their loved ones,” he said. “Many survivors who were rescued from Hemkund Sahib were from not so sound financial background… Being daily wagers, farmers, etc., they never thought their darshan would extend to a disaster. They were unsure how they will take their living from this step.
“There is a need to create awareness that the mission is not ended,” he added. “Many things are to be done, which starts from rebuilding the local infrastructure (and) religious places.”