They have conquered the highest peaks in the world and maneuvered dangerous gorges, endured heavy snowfall and lack of oxygen. But all that pales in comparison to what they are doing now -- helping thousands of stranded, starved and ill villagers of Uttarkashi with food and essential supplies in areas so remote that even the army jawans have failed to make their way to these places.
A small group of ace climbers, led by two women who have conquered Mt Everest, arrived in Uttarkashi last week from all over India to help rescue operations in the flood-ravaged state. Till Saturday evening they had managed to climb up to six ‘unreachable’ villages around Maneri, where over 400 people are without home, food, water and medicine since June 16. On the way, they have also rescued, and guided dozens of dehydrated tourists, ordered to trek over 50 kilometres by jawans who were told to rescue women, children and the elderly first.
The group has now sought help from the Tata Relief Trust and several other NGOs to airdrop life-saving materials such as food, medicines, candles, matchboxes, blankets and tents, to these villagers. They are being led by the legendary Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to conquer Mt Everest and Premlata Agarwal the first Indian woman to conquer the highest peaks of all seven continents. Others in the team include journalist and mountaineer Anusha Subramanian, and a team of climbers including Guneet Puri, Yashwant Panwar and Jay Panwar, who were all part of the Mt Thelu expedition.
Hanging on to life
“We have managed to reach stranded villagers at Didsari, Pilang, Jadau and a couple of other places. Most people here are without power, water or a roof over their head. The government has just airdropped packets of biscuits for them to eat. Many of them are suffering from diarrhoea since they are not used to such food. We are trying to help them with food, medicines and some form of shelter,” says Anusha Subramanian, a Mumbai-based journalist and a trained mountaineer who rushed to Uttarkashi after receiving a call from her friends. Subramanian who trained at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering reached Uttarkashi soon.
While Everest conquerer Bachendri Pal, who heads the Tata Adventure Foundation, arrived in Uttarkashi as part of the Tata Relief Trust (TRF) team to spearhead relief operations, she was joined by her friend Premlata Agarwal who holds the twin distinction of being the oldest Indian woman to climb Everest and the first Indian woman to scale the tallest peaks in all seven continents. Subramanian who has several high-altitude treks to her credit, also flew down from Mumbai while mountaineers Puri, Panwar and Tanwar arrived from snow-capped peaks in the upper Himalayas.
Trekking every day for relief operations
According to Subramanian who spoke to SUNDAY MiD Day whenever she and her team were in a zone with mobile connectivity, they have been trekking to different villages every day, taking small supplies of food and medication, as they await choppers from the TRF to arrive with tents, foodgrain, candles and other supplies.
“Uttarkashi seems like a ghost town, so different from what I have experienced in the past. The tragedy has many ramifications for locals, the most important being loss of livelihood. Yesterday, we, along with some employees of the NGO Sri Bhuvaneshwari Mahila Ashram (SBMA) and the TRF team, went to assess the situation in the upper reaches of Maneri. These villages have lost their homes and their land,” she said.
A rapid assessment by SBMA shows that Uttarkashi has 120 villages, which have been completely destroyed. There are no roads to connect them to mainland, no electricity and above all no ration to cook food. “This is the third monsoon disaster since 2010 in this region. After the first two disasters, the government identified 250 villages as dangerous but did not take action and relocate villagers,” said a member of the SBMA.
The ace mountaineers are now helping adopt six such villages of New Didsari, Didsari, Pilang, Jadaou, Bayana and Shyaba and provide relief to approximately 400 families. “Bachendri Pal is originally from Uttarakhand. She has personally surveyed some of these villages and along with all of us she is ensuring that relief reaches each and every villager,” says Subramanian.
The team recalled how they were shocked to see the condition at New Didsari, one of the villages they reached. “It has 55 families who have been displaced from their homes and lost everything they had. No medical aid has reached these villages yet. The villagers are sad, disappointed and angry. The bridge that connects their village with the world, has been washed away,” recalled Guneet Puri, who reached Uttarkashi on June 20 after a month in the upper Himalayas attempting to scale a 20,000 feet peak. The other villages, explains Pal, are even more remote. The only way to get to these villagers is through treacherous mountainous routes. Even a helicopter cannot land here and airdropping is the only option after all roads were destroyed. But these bravehearts are not giving up. They are staying put, till the villagers are back on their feet. At a time, when politicians are busy gaining political mileage from this human tragedy, heroes like these men and women are keeping the nation’s flag flying proudly.
‘We met people on the verge of death’
Guneet Puri is yet to come to terms with what has been the biggest mountaineering challenge of her life. The ace mountaineer and her teammates were on their way back from Mt Thelu when they encountered the disaster.
We reached Harsil village on June 21. Over 4, 000 people were stranded there. They had all been forced to walk over 50 km since the Army was rescuing children, women and the disabled first. We met people on the verge of exhaustion or death. All of us were carrying between 23 to 30 kilos of equipment with us since we were returning from an expedition. But when we saw the plight of these tourists, we happily carried their luggage with us. In the end, we almost carried some of them, too. By the time we reached Gangani, all our toes has blisters. We could hardly walk. But things were about to get worse. From here to Uttarkashi, entire roads had vanished. We helped hundreds of tourists who had no energy to walk, let alone climb the huge boulders. We rushed a woman to the hospital in Maneri after she fainted. These are my people and we have to take care of them. We are doing what we can. But when I look at the magnitude of the disaster, our efforts seem to insignificant. Still, every drop counts.