At around 9.30 am on Sunday, Godambari Singh was working with her mother-in-law in their fields in Reni village, on the banks of the Rishiganga river in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district. They heard a sudden noise, like an explosion. Godambari would later say she thought the sky had split into two.
Looking up, Godambari saw the river rushing towards her, bringing stones and rocks along with it. Even as she stood there, her mother-in-law was swept away.
What Godambari had witnessed was the massive flooding that , February 7. According to reports, it was caused by a piece of the Nanda Devi glacier falling into the Alaknanda river in Tapovan area and bursting through the Rishiganga dam.
Thirty two people are confirmed to have died so far, and about 200 are missing.
In their home in Reni, Godambari and her husband, Prem Singh, are struggling to come to terms with their loss. They’ve been inundated by visitors: neighbours offering condolences and media personnel asking Godambari to narrate what happened.
“The whole village was covered in a cloud of dust,” Prem told Newslaundry. “The river was roaring, the earth was shaking. The windows of our house were rattling. We’ve never seen anything like that in our lives.”
There are dozens of villages like Reni in the area, situated in the valley near the river and adjoining mountains. Sunday’s catastrophe has left the residents of these villages terrified; many no longer want to live there.
Reni village is where the Chipko movement started in the 1970s. Reni resident Gaura Devi was a prominent Chipko activist who united women to stand against the felling of trees. Gaura Devi’s son, Chandra Singh, said that after Sunday, villagers have been abandoning their homes at night to sleep in temporary tents pitched in the hills above.
Prem Singh and his wife Godambari.
Jhoothi Devi and her husband Chandra Singh.
“I went up the mountain on Sunday and returned only today,” he said, meaning Tuesday. “People believe the calamity can strike again. We have sent some family members to Joshimath for safety too.”
His wife, Jhoothi Devi, added: “How long can we live in fear like this? It would be better if the government relocates us to somewhere else.”
Opposition to the projects
The proliferation of power projects in Chamoli has also come under scrutiny. Questions are now being raised on the size of the dams, the digging of tunnels, and the blasting of rocks in the mountains.
The glacier burst – the National Thermal Power Corporation’s Tapovan-Vishnugad hydel project and the Rishiganga hydel project – and scores of workers were trapped in tunnels as the water rushed in. These workers were not just local people; they hailed from Jammu and Kashmir, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Nepal, and Uttar Pradesh.
Both projects are located in the ecologically sensitive Nandadevi Biosphere Reserve buffer zone. The 520-megawatt Tapovan project has been under construction for the last 15 years.
The affected villagers told Newslaundry that they had opposed both the projects. And many of those who spoke out against the projects are now buried under the rubble.
Prem Singh, who worked at the Rishiganga project for a few years, said extensive damage was done to the mountains for the projects, and locals guessed that destruction would soon follow.
“Many people opposed the projects at the time,” he said. “Then, we were consoled by the promises of employment and a better life. People were wary but once the projects started, they had hope.”
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As , the incident has spotlighted “the rampant construction of dams and government’s policy in pursuing major infrastructure projects in Uttarakhand’s ecologically sensitive and fragile Himalayan region”. The report pointed out that in 2014, an expert committee formed on the Supreme Court's order “held that the construction of so many dams had worsened the impact of the 2013 floods and recommended dropping of 23 hydropower projects”.
The villagers told Newslaundry that their opposition to the Tapovan project was so strong that its inauguration function was held in Dehradun, not at the project site.
“We’re not educated,” Prem Singh said. “All we want from the government is to be relocated from these villages which aren’t safe anymore, and to be given some work. We are not asking to go to Delhi or Dehradun, but we must be relocated to safer places. Living here is not safe anymore.”
A version of this report was originally published on . It was translated to English by Shardool Katyayan.
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