Long road home
Down To Earth|September 01, 2021
Uttarakhand is increasingly declaring its villages disasterprone. While many are fighting relocation, those who shift face conflicts with host villages over resources like water and grazing land. Is relocation the right way to mitigate disasters that are striking the Himalayan state with increasing ferocity?
TRILOCHAN BHATT DEHRADUN

ON JULY 18, when the district administration of Chamoli moved the statue of Gaura Devi from Raini village to a safer place in the town of Joshimath, located 25 km downhill, it had in reality removed the symbol of a historic event that helped protect the sensitive ecology of upper Himalaya until recently. The legendary Gaura Devi in 1974 led the Chipko movement launched by the women of Raini and other villages across the Garhwal Himalayas to protect its forests from loggers and its steep mountain slopes from getting washed away by rains. Today we are fighting again but to leave Raini and be relocated to a safer place, says sarpanch Bhawan Rana.

Located at an altitude of about 3,000 m, just below the Nanda Devi glaciers, Raini is nestled on both sides of a deep gorge traversed by the Rishiganga river. In 2000, the year when Uttarakhand became a separate state, the government allowed a 13-MW run-of-the-river hydroelectric project to be built on the Rishiganga, right below Raini. By 2005, construction works on the dam and deforestation in the area were in full swing. Soon, houses developed cracks as the builders started blowing up the mountain just below the village. We have been demanding relocation since then. But no one paid heed until things got worse, Rana claims.

This year, the village has experienced natural disasters after five decades, that too in quick succession. On February 7, 2021, flash floods triggered by a glacial breakage destroyed the power plant and flooded the lower part of the village. Officially, 206 people went missing and 88 bodies were recovered in the district; six of them were from Raini (see 'They had us fooled', 1-15 March, 2021). Between June 13 and 17, Raini was again hit by floods following incessant rainfall, and 14 houses in the lower part of the village were destroyed. A stretch of the Joshimath-Malari highway, which connects to the international border, also caved in.

Following the June floods, the district administration has advised the 14 households to temporarily shift to a school in Chaklata village located downhill. Over time, these families will be relocated to another village, Subhai, located 5 km uphill. Instead of offering relief, the process has aggravated the agony of the residents.

Among the many people in Raini who continue living in their cracked houses is the 50-year-old Tanuja Devi, who allege that the administration has failed to ensure the safety of people and their wares. Through a notice from the Joshimath tehsildar on June 16, 2021, pasted outside her house, Tanuja has been advised to relocate to the Chaklata school. We can reach there only after crossing the newly built Rishiganga bridge, which itself is at the risk of being washed away in case of a landslide. With our belongings and animals on this side, how can we keep shuttling back and forth from the school risking life and limb?” she says. In Subhai, the residents are already up in arms against the rehabilitation of Raini residents in their village. They have complained to the district administration that additional families would put increased pressure on limited common resources like grazing land and drinking water.

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