A Photo Journey Through Uttarakhand

Bharat Lal Seth

Earlier this year before the southwest monsoons set in, our regional team decided to pay a visit to the Indian state of Uttarakhand, which was ravaged by infamous floods last year that claimed more than 5,000 lives. The people living in the Alaknanda River basin – one of the headwaters of the Ganga River – have yet to recover from the mental trauma and physical damages caused by the floods many believe were exacerbated by the frenetic dam building on the river and its several tributaries.

During the visit we travelled upstream from the confluence of the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers, which merge to form the Ganga. There are five major confluences of the Alaknanda and its major tributaries, known as prayags where ablutions are performed before prayer in Hindu tradition. Each meeting of the rivers is steeped in legend and mythology.

The Alaknana (left) meets the Dhauliganga river at a much river point of confluence called Vishnuprayag.
The Alaknana (left) meets the Dhauliganga river at a revered point of confluence called Vishnuprayag.
Bharat Lal Seth

As we drove upriver, the aftermath of the 2013 floods were glaringly evident. Large boulders, rock and silt were found in places never before, while destroyed metal bridges lay mangled in the river. The high water mark remains distinct instilling latent fear in all.

Our driver pointed us towards the numerous roadside eateries normally open at this time of the year, but most were deserted. The decrease in the number of pilgrims and tourists after the floods has impacted income streams for all general and ration shop owners I spoke to without exception. The number of tourists in the area is one-tenth compared to the same time last year.

People working in shops and hotels say they have gone months without pay and are now counting on the tourist season that began in June. But hotel bookings remain dismally low. Many people have made the difficult decision to pack their bags and head to the flatlands. For some, the only choice has been to take up construction work for a daily wage no longer confident that a stream of tourists will give them their much-needed seasonal employment and cash reserves to last the cold winter months. But as many head to the plains latching on to any job from cleaning to waiting tables at dhabas (roadside restaurants), some have left their ancestral homes bereft and broken with their kin still buried under the rubble and ruins. The government continues to hold meetings in the state capital, Dehradun; however, there is little actionable evidence on the ground.

All the river confluences can be reached by road although there are frequent landslides in the region, which locals say have been aggravated by dam building in the region. I’ve visited the Alaknanda river valley for the past two decades and never before have I seen so many stones and boulders in the riverbed. In some places the riverbed has risen 50 feet due to the sediment deposits in the past year alone. We recall the horrific images of hotels crumbling in to the river carrying with it boulders, silt, cars, road aggregates, muck illegally disposed off by hydroelectric project developers and just about anything that came in the path of the turbulent waters.

The fight against the tens and hundreds of large hydroelectric dam projects continues on the ground and in the Supreme Court of India. The Apex court-appointed committee has submitted its report, which has come down heavily on the unscrupulous nature of dam building. The Committee has also proposed to the Court to scrap 23 out of 24 large hydro projects proposed for the river basin. On the ground there is considerable polarization – you’re either pro or anti dam.

At the tea stalls men talk politics and share stories of declining tourism revenue. Our car driver (coming from Haridwar where most of the taxi tours are reserved) said he would normally be booked for the next two months at this point in the year. However, this year only a few have inquired and he is guaranteed only one week of employment. Even news of a drizzle is keeping the tourists away, he says.

My hope is for people, pious and atheists alike, to once again fearlessly visit the beautiful Alaknanda valley. Every cup of tea, every bowl of steaming noodles and every night stay financially equips valleys residents to endure the cold harsh winters. As more people experience the beauty of this incredible river, it is more likely we’ll be able to protect it for future generations.

Check out the photos below from our trip and leave your comments on Flickr

Tuesday, July 15, 2014