Srinagar, Uttarakhand: In Srinagar, a bustling town of nearly one lakh people situated on the banks of the Alaknanda river, political parties appear to have all but forgotten the devastating flood of June 2013, when the river burst through its left bank and flooded the surrounding areas. Many died in the tragedy and 86 families are still battling for compensation.
Nearly four years since the disaster, signs of the flood are still visible. The embankment is being strengthened through construction of a concrete flood protection or retaining wall. On the main road, which had been washed away in the flood but has since been restored, the building of the Indian Technical Institute (ITI) stands abandoned, with half of its ground floor filled with mud that has solidified, bearing testimony to the large amount of silt that had been deposited in the buildings due to the flood.
The residents of the region and environmentalists insist that the large silt deposition in Srinagar following the flood was primarily due to the construction of the Srinagar Hydro Electric Project (SHEP), as the silt deposited upstream of the dam entered the town along with the flood waters.
Those living on the banks of the river still recall with horror the manner in which the Alaknanda surged on that fateful night. “It had been raining and water reached up to the first floor of our building late in the night,” said Arjun Singh Bhandari, an employee of Kwik Food Court, adding that there were several guests in the hotel then as it was the peak season and all of them rushed to the upper floors to save their lives.
Nearby, retired ITI principal Jeet Kumar Chamoli had a close shave with death. He recalled how when the flood waters began rising late that night, he rushed to the first floor of his house along with three other family members. “But the gushing waters kept on rising and even half of the upper floor was submerged. The sound of the water and its velocity was just too terrifying. The gurgling waters were taking away the household goods with them, utensils, furniture, everything. We had nowhere else to go and stayed put in the hope that the waters would not rise any further.”
Fortunately, Chamoli said, a rescue boat sent by the administration reached them just in time. “We were lucky to be evacuated. For the next nearly month and a half the entire ground floor lay submerged in thick mud, which had been deposited by the Alaknanda. First I stayed with some relatives for a few months but as thefts began taking place here, we came back and engaged workers to clear the silt. Initially we stayed on the first floor, before moving back to the ground floor about six months after the incident.”
Chamoli said all that the family received as way of compensation was Rs 1 lakh. His is among the 86 families fighting for compensation and whose matter went to the Supreme Court. On the directions of the apex court, 86 identified people have now filed their assessment claims with the district administration.
Chamoli’s daughter, Santosh Pant, said the damage caused by the flood ran into lakhs. “The flood also caused extensive damage to the electricity, water and other installations as well as to the building, which had to be repaired to make it habitable once again.”
Politicians have visited the area while campaigning for the assembly elections and have even pasted posters on the front wall of the Chamoli bungalow, but none have made any promises to those affected by the flood. It is primarily environmentalists and activists who have been fighting for those who suffered on account of the SHEP and the silt deposition associated with the project.
Vimal Bhai of Matu Jansangathan, which has filed a case against the dam company, said the Supreme Court has asked the sub-divisional magistrate to receive the claims but stayed the distribution of Rs 9.27 crore. “About a month ago, people had filed the claims along with their identity proofs and photographs. Neither the company nor the Centre or state government had raised any questions about the claims before the National Green Tribunal which had ordered payment of the claim amount.”
Stating that Rs 1 lakh was paid by the government initially and some municipal corporations also donated small amounts, Vimal said so far there has been no discussion on compensation for the mental trauma suffered. “The manner in which the families returned from the brink of death, were rescued in the nick of time by administration boats and later returned to find their properties submerged in deep mud and personal belongings damaged, made many of them send away their young family members. So now you find mostly the elderly left behind.”
A little upstream of Srinagar, which has a history of massive floods and was once the capital of the Garhwal kingdom, the construction of the 330 MW Alaknanda Hydro Electric Power Project is still continuing.
Environmentalists and locals insist that the 16-km long reservoir for this project had caused severe soil erosion in the vicinity of Dhari village, which sits opposite the Dhari Devi temple, about 10 km further up from the dam site.
The protesters say that since the Alaknanda Hydro Power Co. (AHPC) Ltd (a subsidiary of infrastructure giant GVK which was awarded the much-delayed project in 2006) wanted to remove and rehabilitate the Dhari Devi temple, it stopped the river waters, leading to the deposition of large amounts of silt upstream. This silt, they say, was washed down by the floods and ended up filling parts of Srinagar.
As Vimal put it, there is no guarantee that such a disaster will occur again. He said that the 2013 floods were caused by human error. “Dam work had not been completed. They had closed the dam gates so that the Dhari Devi temple upstream gets submerged. It was an emotive issue which was also in court. The company took advantage of the rains and rising water level to say that the Dhari Devi was getting submerged. After the deity was relocated, they opened the gates and the silt mixed with water rushed down and this caused the flooding.”
Incidentally, the flood had occurred the day the Dhari Devi idol was removed from its original site in the middle of the river and placed in a temple constructed on the banks. As people in the region revere Dhari Devi as an avatar of Kali and the guardian angel of Char Dham pilgrims, the temple is now once again being reconstructed at its original location.
Chandra Mohan Bhatt, president of the Srinagar Bandh Aapda Sangharsh Samiti, said the NGT had given the final sanction for release of the claims after the self-assessment of loss was made by the petitioners. “The GVK company had then gone to the Supreme Court, which stayed the deposition of money and directed the sub-divisional magistrate of Srinagar to verify the loss suffered by the 86 victims.”
So far, he said, only 75 people have received Rs 1 lakh each and the remaining 11, who were tenants or others, have been paid lower amounts like Rs 25,000. “Most of the victims were retired persons and they have lost a lifetime of earnings in this disaster. We had also written to the administration for higher compensation but they did nothing about it,” Bhatt said. However, the issue has got almost no traction in the assembly elections as only about 2,000-3000 people reside in the affected area.