American Sadhvi helps victims of rain-ravaged Uttarakhand

Jun 30, 2013, 07:50 IST | Phorum Dalal

Sadhvi Bhagawati, a Stanford graduate who made Rishikesh her home 17 years ago, talks to Phorum Dalal about how dynamite blasts to make roads destroyed the foundation of the mountains, relief operations in rain-ravaged Uttarakhand, and how we cannot afford to make the same mistakes again

On June 16, Sadhvi Bhagawati looked out of the window of her room in Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh. For the past 17 years, this has been home for the Stanford University graduate with a PhD in psychology. She opened her palms out and caught a few raindrops.

A doctor attends to a patient at one of the relief camps in Rishikesh

 “I love the rains, and though it was unusual for it to pour so heavily in Rishikesh in June, I didn’t give it much thought. The downpour continued the next day, and for the first time, we performed the evening aarti on the streets, that too, standing. The water had come up to the street level, and at that moment, I realised something was terribly wrong. As we sang the Ganga aarti, we watched the waves rise, and this was not the Ganga, as we knew her.

Sadhvi Bhagawati
Sadhvi Bhagawati shares a light moment with local children

We prayed to Ganga, telling her “We love you, par kripiya ab shant ho jaye (we request you to calm down),” says Sadhvi Bhagawati, who took Sanyas in June 2000 from Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, marking her pledge to a life of service and renunciation. She performs a vast array of service at Parmarth Niketan, teaching meditation and yoga and speaking to audiences on spirituality and Indian culture.

That night, Sadhvi Bhagawati took her mobile phone to her room. “I typically switch off my phone after office hours and leave it on my work table. But, we didn’t know what was happening, and I found the need to be reachable, in case something went wrong,” she adds.

Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji of Parmarth Niketan Ashram and Sadhvi Bhagawati take part in relief operations

For different people in Uttarakhand, realisation struck at different moments. Two weeks since the rains ravaged Uttarakhand, most tourists have been evacuated from Badrinath, Kedarnath and Uttarkashi, but there are people still stuck in the mountains. Around 1,400 people are still waiting to be rescued. “Rishikesh is the lap of the Himalayas and while we are safe, people in the nearby mountains have lost their homes and loved ones,” says Sadhvi Bhagawati, who admits that the Ganga had been warning them about an impending disaster for years, first Uttarakashi, then Rudra Prayag, year after year.

Foreign tourists
Foreign tourists in Rishikesh take part in relief operations at the bus stand

The Uttarakhand mountains are fragile. Every year, dynamite blasts are carried out in the name of road construction. “We have killed everything the mountains have -- uprooted trees, destroyed the soil and deforestated the hillside. Since the first year I came here, there have been frequent roadblocks due to avalanches and landslides,” says Sadhvi Bhagawati.

No half measures
On June 26, Sadhvi Bhagawati, along with other ashram trustees and volunteers, met Nobel laureate RK Pachauri, chairperson of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since 2002, over lunch. “We came to the conclusion that we have two situations to handle.

The first one is a temporary measure to help the affected yatris and homeless locals with food, shelter and medicines,” Sadhvi Bhagawati tells us, adding that they have set up two relief camps at Rishikesh bus stand and railway station where food, water, medical care, first-aid and beds have been set up. “The second challenge is to rebuild the infrastructure after the rains.

We can’t afford to repeat our mistakes and recklessly implement policies. The plans will have to be eco-friendly, which are condusive for the locals, pilgrims and the nature.” At the two relief camps, a team of doctors and volunteers are takingin everyone rescued from the higher mountains. “Rishikeshand Haridwar are first stops for the evacuated people to reach their final destinations. We have also set up mobile phone charging areas so people can charge their phones to call their loved ones.”

Information centre
Along with the government, Parmarth Niketan volunteers have set up four notification stations with LCD screens and computers connected with Internet. “We are registering details of every rescued person from Yamnotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. The details are sent to various stations so that their loved ones are know that they are safe,” she says.

The road ahead
While the government operations have no control over the weather or terrain, they are doing their best, Sadhvi Bhagawati opines. “From sending in relief material, setting camps to army coordinating with the Indo-Tibetan forces for helicopter rescue operations, the government is on the job. But, there is a limitation to what they can do as avalanches are breaking out, and rains are spoiling rescue operations,” she says.

Once the rains subside, rebuilding Uttarakhand will need the government’s leadership. “We are working on processing documents for Green Pilgrimages, which will outline how the construction should take place, keeping in mind the safety of the locals, yatris and without disturbing the ecosystem,” she says as an attendant in the background informs her that another bus filled with yatris has arrived at the camp. “It will take some time to get things on track. We are offering out bit of seva,” she signs off.

Relief work for tourists
Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji of Parmarth Niketan Ashram, is the president, India Heritage Research Foundation and Ganga Action Parivar of which he is also the founder. Some of the relief projects undertaken include:
>> 20 hired buses have been sent up into the affected areas laden with medicines, food supplies, blankets, warm clothes and mobile phones so that victims can call their loved ones. These buses deposit the goods for those stranded there, and then carried as many rescued back down as possible, nearly 1,000 people.
>> The ashram has coordinated with the Railway Ministry to provide free rail travel to all survivors of the flood
>> They have provided huge quantities of desi ghee, sandalwood, camphor and the other supplies needed for cremation, for the proper, traditional cremations for those who lost their lives in the floods

>> Orphans and Widows: The Ganga Action Parivar has informed the government that they will take care of all those who were orphaned or widowed in this tragedy. Anyone orphaned or widowed by the floods, from any state, will be given permanent shelter and care.
*Permanent rehabilitation of the Char Dham areas, particularly the hard-hit Kedarnath area. The trust will adopt the village of Rambara and other areas. Reconstruction will be done in eco-friendly, green, sustainable ways to prevent future tragedies. 

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