I have to only shut my eyes and I can still hear the roar of the Kali River – furious and gushing in its normal course during a usual monsoon day in August last year. Nothing that the multiple briefings given by the ITBP officers prior to departure prepares you for the sheer brute force of this river. You have to walk a full day on the narrow path along its side – the most challenging part of the KM yatra. We did this stretch on day 6 – starting at Gala and ending at Budhi.
Along the way, there are the small settlements (few families only) at Lakhimpur and Malpa where we had breakfast and lunch stops. These are temporary summer settlements, I am sure, that cater to the yatris and other locals.
What is really amazing is that this trecherous path is the only connectivity of the villages beyond, with the rest of the world. Although scantily populated, there are a number of villages in those areas – and we passed one, Garbiyan en route to Gunji from Buddhi. This was a fairly large village and although the people I talked to mostly had a house in Dharchula also for the education of their children and the winter months, every item of life has to do the 3 day trek from Dharchula. However, there must manyh who have to brave all the year in these parts.
And as I walked that day through the spectacular bhogiyals of the upper Himalayas, I remember wondering what must have driven people to seek such remote locations to settle in. Agricultural land and natural mineral wealth have been thehistorical great inducers of migration – the westward thrust in the Americas, to the unknown land of Australia etc.. But here was a region that had only 4 summer months and terrain not conducive to any form of agriculture. All one could do was grow short term crops in summer and keep live stock. How long had they been there? Could one dig out some history?
The last month has been full of visuals of the disaster in Uttarakhand – the focus almost exclusively on Garhwal. No doubt the damage was far more there, but my allegiance has been and is with Kumaon – which I have been visiting for the last 2 decades. I could get little news of the damage afflicted in the Kumaon hills. Through friends and contacts I have learnt that most of the bridges in the upper reaches have been washed away. My friend’s mother, who lives in one of the remote villages of Chamoli, is not contactable. And, there were stray reports that the Kali was in spate – and there had been considerable damage in Pitthoragarh District.
“We also forget, when we see visuals of roads that have been washed away, what happens to the lives of communities living in villages and hamlets in mountainous regions. The absence of even small roads accentuates their isolation. If someone is sick, they cannot easily rach a public health facilty. Even if they want to educate their children, it is not easy to ensure that their children attend the nearest school.”So writes Kalpana Sharma in this Sunday’s Hindu supplement.
Every day, at stray moments my thoughts have been drifting to those villages. But this article caught my attention. Unless you have been to these places, you cannot even understand the degree of the isolation of the remote parts. All children in this area move to Dharchula to start schooling. There is no kind of medical help – I saw a sick man tied to a plastic chair and being carried on the back of a porter – and this maybe a 2-3 day trek to the nearest medical help. Almost every one has a knowledge of the medicinal plants which grow in abundance in the area. But how tough life is we cannot even speculate….
The first batch of this years’ Kailash Yatra was already on their way during the disastrous week and were stuck in Gala for a few days, before they went on ahead. The 2nd one returned from Almora and subsequent batches have been cancelled. So, I can imagine the state of the paths. But what of the traders en route whose only source of income are these yatras? What of the ponies and the porters? What is the fate of Dharmesh my porter, and of all the people who served us tea and lunch and dinner? I can only hope they are safe – I have not been able to connect to Dharmesh’s phone. These boys do the tough trek 3-4 times between June and September – the money they earn seeing them through for their education.
Any debate between environment and development which does have the participation of the real players, the people, is bound to lead to future disasters. And this participation should not be through the ballot, but on a level playing field where all the parties are equally well informed. There are special allowances given to a variety of people who work in tough circumstances or locations – be it political or geographic. We should not hestitate to pay special allowances to those who opt to continue to live there – because by doing so they are preserving a valued natural resource – the sheer unmatched beauty of the Upper Himalayas.