Uttarakhand’s travails continue: the rain gods refuse to relent; hillsides crumble; missing pilgrims and villagers have been given up as dead; zero to inadequate relief has reached trapped human and animal survivors. Politicians and economists will quibble over the quantum of loss and funds necessary to rebuild the State, but the true dimensions of the tragedy can never be quantified. Officers and jawans of the Army and Air Force rose to the challenge; their rescue operations were possibly the only positive face of the catastrophe.
Three ugly facets of the calamity deserve mention. The first is the attempt by at least three major international evangelical bodies to enter Dev Bhumi for calamity relief, and more likely, to harvest souls. In a situation where even State agencies have not been able to reach surviving populations in isolated hilltops, there is no justification for allowing evangelical bodies to enter the region.
Within days of the floods, these Western agencies and the Western media began raising fears over trafficking of surviving women and children, even though the police are present at every rescue point. They are lobbying to create ‘child friendly spaces’, under their control of course. This must be firmly rebuffed. Also, all relief must be routed and disbursed through State agencies, with full accountability. Many private individuals and organisations are collecting donations for Uttarakhand survivors. The Centre must closely monitor these agencies, or direct all relief to be funneled to the Prime Minister’s relief fund.
The second unseemly spectacle pertains to the restoration of puja at Kedarnath, especially the brazen attempt by the Dwarka Sankaracharya to browbeat the traditional Lingayat priests and takeover the cash-rich shrine. Swami Swaroopanand began the controversy though he knew that rains and floods are continuing, and bad weather preventing even collecting the rotting corpses in and around the shrine and giving them a decent funeral. Until that task (still incomplete after a month) is accomplished, it is impossible to ritually purify the shrine and restore pujas.
Raval (chief priest) Bhima Shankar Ling Shivacharya rightly sensed the gravity of the calamity and took the bhog murti (movable image) to the Omkareshwar shrine in Ukhimath, where it traditionally travels for winter. Until Kedarnath is repaired and made safe for priests to live and pilgrims to travel, this is the most appropriate place for the deity to reside and give darshan to devotees.
Meanwhile, Kedarnath must remain in the custody of its traditional guardians, including the Tehri Maharaja and the Lingayat Ravals who were settled there by Adi Sankaracharya in the eighth century. The Congress MLA from Srinagar, video-graphed entering Kedarnath sanctum with his shoes on, must be removed from the Badrinath Kedarnath Temple Committee.
Given the dimensions of the destruction, it bears stating that none of the Sankaracharyas and eminent religious leaders supported Swami Nigamanand when he protested against rampant stone crushing and strip mining along the banks of the Ganga; they failed to rise even after he fasted to death in June 2011. Nor did they support late Prof GD Agarwal and local villagers struggling to draw national attention to the plight of the Ganga. Locals say the gigantic statue of Shiva at Rishikesh, swept like a reed by the raging waters, was an encroachment by a famous ashram. The Ganga swept it away once before, but the ashram blithely trespassed upon the river bed again…
Regarding restoration of the damaged Kedarnath shrine, it is understandable that neither the State nor Central Government want help from the Gujarat Chief Minister. But it is scandalous that amidst inhospitable terrain and inclement weather, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was twice airlifted to the site when common sense says no work is possible during the monsoons, after which winter will shut off the route. At this stage, it is impossible to even cover the shrine with protective plastic or canvas sheets.
Restoration can begin only after the road is repaired; given the state of the hillsides, this could take a couple of years. Governments should face and speak the truth, and not risk innocent lives in showmanship. Above all, once the ASI has repaired the shrine, it must not be allowed to take over a living temple as a protected site; this would be an act of aggression against Hindu dharma. Anyway, Uttarakhand must first restore the Himalayan forests on war footing for at least five years. Only when the hillsides are stabilised can roads be rebuilt, and then too, it will have to move cautiously to avert fresh landslides.
The third disturbing factor concerns the rescue operations and reports that the Centre is approaching international agencies like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank for aid, after rebuffing help from States like Gujarat. The Prime Minister’s Office must explain why helicopters offered by Gujarat for rescue operations were refused, and clarify persistent stories (on Twitter, ignored by mainstream media) that private helicopters run by politically well-connected persons were (and are) allowed to ply and rescue pilgrims at exorbitant charges ranging from Rs one to two lakh per person. Do private helicopters have a license to conduct such operations, and do they pay taxes on such extortion-based incomes?
Then, when the rains and floods continue and there is no credible estimate of damage done, why the rush to increase India’s foreign debt when the rupee is so weak against the dollar?
Much of the cost of new infrastructure must be recovered as fines from companies that rammed their way to winning contracts to set up over 600 damns in the ecologically fragile region, dumped their waste into the Ganga, and unleashed havoc. Funds of abandoned /incomplete projects can readily be diverted for infrastructure reconstruction. The Prime Minister can also raise huge funds within the country through tax free bonds with no ceiling. Indeed major infrastructure funds can always be raised within the country with dedicated funding.
Finally, given the immense civilisational significance of the Kedarnath temple, the State Government should make special efforts to monitor its safety and that of the priceless murtis and heritage artifacts from smugglers who may take advantage of its present desolation. Hindus believe the shrine was built by the Pandavas and renovated in the eighth century by Adi Shankaracharya, whose samadhi behind the shrine was swept away by the angry waters. What India most needs is to junk the poisonous ideology of secularism and recover its sense of the sacred.
The Pioneer, 16 July 2013