Dhanita Devi’s home is located in the bucolic village of Sirvani, nestled in the Garwhal forests. The nearest motorable road is almost two kilometres away – an impossible distance to bridge when the weather is rough, cutting off the village.
The flooding of Kedarnath four years ago, however, did more than confine Dhanita to her village. The 26-year-old lost her husband, Sunil, leaving her as the sole caretaker of her three children.
“I don’t have a job… The government [then Congress] had promised jobs for widows, but it never happened,” Dhanita says. The new BJP government brings no succour either. “I have no hope from the present government. I don’t think victims of the Kedarnath disaster are on the new government’s priority list,” she adds ruefully.
The Uttarakhand disaster left 296 widows in Rudraprayag district, which encompasses Kedarnath, a majority of whom now depend on the compensation they received from the government. With 32 widows, the Deoli-Bhanigram gram sabha, under which Sirvani hamlet falls, is the worst affected and has come to be known as the “village of widows”.
Dhanita had been surviving on the compensation from the government and NGOs – Rs 7 lakh for Sunil’s death and another Rs 1.7 lakh for the loss of businesses. NGO Sulabh International Social Service Organisation handed her Rs 1 lakh to renovate her kutcha house.
But her finances are under strain. “The renovation cost me about Rs 5-6 lakh. I took out funds from the compensation I got from the government to cover it,” Dhanita says. Her son Sudhanshu recently underwent a gastric surgery that cost Rs 1 lakh, and her daughter Sonakshi is currently suffering from a severe fever.
Sulabh pays her Rs 10,000 a month — Rs 2,000 each for herself, her three children and her mother-in-law. This began in 2013, after the flooding, and since it was promised for only five years, Sulabh will stop paying by 2018.
“The money I get from Sulabh is enough for a month, but I don’t know what will happen after it stops paying. Only a little of the government compensation money is left,” she says. Dhanita adds that she already got a glimpse of the hardships that await her in the long run, when, in the aftermath of demonetisation, Sulabh didn’t send her money for months.
The hamlet is home to 35 Dalit families, whose men were either mule owners, or ran shops and lodges along the trek route to Kedarnath. The other hamlets in Deoli-Bhanigram gram sabha are home to many men who are teerth purohits (priests) at the Kedarnath shrine. Sirvani’s residents allege they face bias in disbursement of compensation, a claim denied by the government.
“The priests were influential so they got undue compensation for losses that they didn’t even incur, while we are still fighting for compensation,” says Prakash Lal, who adds that he got a “mere Rs 4.35 lakh as compensation for all his businesses while the priests got inflated compensation.”
“There was no disparity in payment of compensation for the victims since the amount [Rs 7 lakh] was fixed and was paid for each person who died,” says Piyoosh Rautela, executive director of the State Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre. “However, issues have been raised of unfair compensation being paid to people working in the Kedarnath Valley, including shopkeepers, and mule owners… the Rudraprayag district administration is resolving the issues.”
Some 35 km from Sirvani, at Jal Malla village in Ukhimath tehsil, it is afternoon but Sita Devi has not cooked anything. With her husband dead and three children to take care of, Sita is not very optimistic about the future. “Sochti hoon toh tension se chaakar aate hain.ghutan hoti hai (I feel dizzy and suffocated when I am tensed about the challenges that lie ahead),” Sita says.
The floods were not kind to the men either. Ganesh Lal, a former mason from Sirvani, took to alcohol after losing his son Sandeep Kumar to the floods. Ganesh Lal is only 45 but looks emaciated and old, his cheeks sunken. For villagers in Ukhimath, the future looks as hazy as the fog the envelops the region during monsoon.