Driving along the picturesque route from Dehradun towards Devprayag in the Garhwal Himalayas (sangam of the rivers Bhagirathi and Alaknanda) and then upward towards Rudraprayag (meeting of Mandakini and Alaknanda), who can even imagine the nightmare this region had become in June 2013, thanks to the angry waters of the Mandakini?
Nature’s fury or what the locals call the ‘Himalayan tsunami’ in Kedarnath, Uttarkashi and Rudraprayag also destroyed the region’s schools. Luckily, as the waters came crashing down on June 16 and 17, 2013, bringing with them huge rocks, silt, foliage and rubble, destroying ruthlessly whatever
came in its way, the children were on a summer break. They returned to find their schools either gone or damaged badly.
Rotary’s response in this disaster too was fast. “We learnt of it before the government; the CM was not here; the Rudraprayag Collector was hospitalised,” recalls Prem Bhalla, Rotarian of 52 years, and Past District Governor 3080. A meeting was convened on June 17 in Dehradun, the news was flashed to all the 82 clubs in the district and austerity measures were declared for the July 1 installation of new teams. Dinner meets were turned into tea meetings, and the money thus saved, along with more
collected from all over India went to a common pool to help the Uttarakhand victims.
The Rotary Uttarakhand Disaster Relief Trust was formed with Past RI Director Yash Pal Das as one of the Trustees and Treasurer. Giving details of the project to rebuild schools in Uttarakhand, Das says that the Trust has till now collected Rs 5.12 crore, almost all from India, with barely Rs 3–4 lakh coming from overseas.
In September, an MoU was signed with the Uttarakhand Government to repair 120 damaged schools and construct 55 schools in Uttarkashi and
Work on three schools in the Agastyamuni block has almost been completed; this was done with Rs 38 lakh that came in from the Bharat Dalmia Foundation which entrusted the work to the Rotary Uttarakhand Disaster Relief Trust. The total corpus fund includes Rs 31 lakh from the Inner Wheel Association of India.
A scenic journey
I set out on a bright morning to see this high-profile “school project” in remote villages of Uttarakhand, along with District 3080 Governor-elect David Hilton and Assistant Governor Sangeet Sharma. We cover the 180-
odd km distance from Dehradun to Rudraprayag in seven hours, check into a very basic Hotel Mandakini — better hotels are full — and set off for the first school nearing completion in Kyunja, about 35 km from Rudraprayag.
Closer to Devprayag and beyond, one can clearly see telltale symptoms of last year’s fury. Sharma points out half destroyed houses hanging perilously on
the mountains. Every couple of kilometres multipurpose excavators-cum dumpers are stationed to clear landslides — the earlier day has seen some rain, and at one point we have to wait, mercifully only for 15 minutes, for
the road to be
As our Innova winds its way through the 23 km stretch of the service road towards the Kyunja village school, we jump over potholes. The priority in these hills is clearly for the main road going to Kedarnath, but at least a service road allows passage of two wheelers and private jeeps. A ride to Rudraprayag in a jeep costs Rs 50.
Soon the spanking new green roof and whitewashed walls of the school are visible. A final coat of paint and the primary school will be ready in a week for the 51 smartly dressed students, now taking lessons in an adjoining ramshackled hall, to cross over. A kitchen, two toilets, a principal’s room … the Rotarians are ready to build anything the school authorities want, except handing over cash.
More girls than boys
I’m delighted to find 39 girls in the 51-student school. This is also the case in the other two schools we visit. Whether the boys are going to a better or private schools is not within the scope of this article!
The contrast between the spanking new robust hall, and the passable one the children are now using, it is easy to understand why people from surrounding villages are asking Rotarians to build their village schools too. “In one of the schools we pulled down, we were shocked to find barely 12–15 steel sariyas (tor steel) on the roof, when there should have been at least 100 or more,” says PDG Bhalla.
As I talk to some parents, Sharma tells other parents and teachers: “This building can last you 20 to 25 years, but you have to maintain and keep the school clean.”
Das says at the outset the Trust had got an independent analysis on the damage caused to the schools on the list by its own engineers and 30-odd students from IIT Rourkee, and then chalked out its construction programme.
But the continuing rains were a huge problem. But he and other senior Rotary leaders such as Past RI President Kalyan Banerjee have visited their sites to watch the progress. Continuing rains till March have pushed back the project.
At the Kyunja school, which will be handed over after Diwali, Rotary site engineers Arvind and Manish Diwedi are all smiles as their work is admired by surrounding villages. Arvind claims that “many people can’t believe this is a school; they think a Government bungalow is being built.”
That is clearly stretching things, but the satisfaction in the eyes of Bijender Lal, who grows wheat, rice and vegetables on his half-acre plot, while doubling up as a labourer, is evident. A father of five, four of his children, including three daughters Aarti.
Manisha and Sada, are students here. The youngest is only two; the eldest is in Class V and he is getting ready to send her to a secondary school nearby.
Hilton explains the challenges in moving the building material in the hills; many a times after the transporter has dumped the material — most of it pre-fabricated — on the road, they’ve had to wait for days to find decent weather and labour — both at the same time — to move the material to the site. Adds Sharma, “A lot of material we use is pre-fabricated in Dehradun; to depend on local masonry would be hell!”
They don’t have to explain for too long the challenges; I face one soon enough at the school site in Siddhanagar village — a steep trek exceeding one kilometre along a path that often narrows down to demand skills of a tight-rope walker. Hilton explains the ordeal they faced in moving up the 400-kg generator here. “It took 12 Nepali porters two days to carry it up this path. Even bricks, cement, etc., have to be moved up either through porters or mules.”
And then, adds Sharma, comes the challenge of finding labour. Even at Rs 450 a day, labour is hard to come by as they opt for the Government project of rebuilding the main Kedarnath route, at a whopping Rs 950 a day.
At Siddhanagar, where the iron frame of the roof of the Rotary school is ready, and the walls coming up fast, Hilton shows me some rusted steel wires kept on the side. “This was all that we found in the roof; how could such a structure survive,” he wonders. In the small hall where classes are held there are only 14 school children; 10 are girls! Says Mohammed Zakir, their teacher, “Once the new Rotary school is ready I am sure we’ll get 30–35 children. Right now parents are scared to send their children to this school as they feel it is unsafe.”
After Class 5, they will shift to the senior school at Agastyamuni which is 4 km away. The story for girls is the same, a dearth of separate toilets. As one toilet is already there in the schools identified, at least one more will be built so that girls have their separate toilets.
Amazingly, the children do this steep trek every day, but “it takes them hardly 15 minutes to run up the hill; they are used to the terrain,” adds Zakir.
On a good day, opposite the Chameli school the snow-covered Chaukhamba peak is visible. As we leave for the plains the next day, the copious rainfall has given an enchanting green cover to the mountains. Whether it is the towering pines, the oaks, Indian red and other timber and water bearing green trees, the leaves are sparkling and as summer gives way to autumn, the colours are changing and Himalayan flowers are blooming.
Near Kaliya Saur, about 12–15 km after Rudraprayag, our driver Sanjay recounts the tale of the local belief in how this “tsunami” was triggered. Pointing to a temple on the banks of the Mandakini, he says that as their temple was getting submerged in the river, the locals built a new temple and shifted the deity there. “After a day or two the floods came; the timing was not right for shifting the goddess, aur Ma ko gussa aa gaya.