“I received one lakh as compensation for my husband’s death,” says 31-year-old Neema Devi in her kitchen on a sunny January afternoon. She is cooking a humble rice and dal meal for her three children who will be home from school soon. The only light in the kitchen comes from the firewood of the stove. Neema’s husband Kishan Singh died in flash floods of June 2013. He earned Rs 15,000 a month by supplying rations and carrying people on mules to the Kedarnath temple during the tourist season. His body was never found like many others.
Asked to clarify whether she got only Rs 1,00,000 as compensation (state government announced a compensation of Rs 7,00,000 for deaths in Kedarnath tragedy) Neema makes a call to her brother-in-law who confirms the compensation cheque was for Rs 5,00,000. Neema breaks down and weeps copiously at this delayed truth, five years after the death of her husband. “We had a very happy family before June 2013. The rains took away everything,” she says haltingly.
The discrepancy in compensation amounts come up repeatedly across homes where families lost loved ones to the flash floods. “During the disaster and in its aftermath, the government orders were constantly changing regarding the announcement of the compensation. It was initially 5 lakh, and later increased to 7 lakh. We are looking to resolve complaints regarding compensation,” Mangesh Ghildiyal, the district magistrate of Rudraprayag district told indianexpress.com.
Neema lives with her mother-in-law, her two brother-in-laws and their families in the same house in Kholi village in Rudraprayag district. They run their kitchens and households separately. It’s clear the compensation money has caused tension in the household.
“I operate the bank account, but I don’t know how to read and write. After my husband died, I was not aware of anything around me. When everybody in the village said the government is distributing cheques to affected families, I made myself stand somehow and went to receive it. I didn’t know the amount of compensation,” she says adding she isn’t sure how much is left. Neema and her three children make ends meet on the Rs 1,000 a month she gets as widows pension and meager sums by selling milk.
According to the state government’s disaster mitigation and management centre, 801 people were killed in landslides, heavy rain and flash floods during the monsoon between 2010 and 2017. This figure is in addition to 4,000 deaths in the flash floods of 2013. Although the department doesn’t have separate data on male and female victims, it is expected that there were more male victims since men were engaged in the outdoor professions. Women survivors on the other hand become the secondary victims and suffer a lifelong aftermath. In Rudraprayag district alone, 296 women lost their husbands in the 2013 floods. The hardships have since then increased with the death of the main breadwinner. Most women say they fear threat of violence and abuse. The loss of livelihood has been further compounded by illiteracy and lower income. The post disaster trauma and stress has mostly gone unrecognised by the state disaster department or NGOs.
“We don’t have enough funds to look after families of victims of natural disasters. Our work ends with the end of the disaster,” says Piyoosh Rautela, executive director of Disaster Management and Mitigation Centre, Dehradun.
Tucked away in Uttarakhand’s Rudraprayag district is the village of Lamgundi. Most of its men were priests, shopkeepers and hoteliers that worked along the trek route of Kedarnath temple. In the 2013 flash floods the village lost 25 men. Five years later the tragedy has frayed relationships and brought fissures of inequity to the fore.
Yashoda Devi (61) lives with her two daughter-in-laws and three grandchildren. Both her sons were priests at the Kedarnath temple and died in the tragedy. Suman (30) and Surekha (27) received Rs 7,00,000 each as compensation but much of the money went in the construction of a house. No adult male member lives with the family. “Men come in the night and knock on our doors,” says Suman. “They get drunk at night after the village goes silent,” she says, adding that filing a complaint at the police station against villagers would be unthinkable. Suman sustains herself with the widow pension and a monthly salary of Rs 3,000 she gets from the village Anganwadi centre. Surekha has sent her two sons to yoga guru Ramdev’s ashram in Guptkashi. “It’s not possible to feed so many mouths with the money. So I have sent my children away. They will get food, education and shelter there,” Surekha says holding back her tears.
The possibility of a remarriage is bleak even if the women may be willing. “The women of lower-castes can remarry. It’s a taboo for us. Widows are considered a curse to our family and society. Men can remarry, but we can’t,” Surekha adds. For the Dalit women that Surekha refers to, the situation is grimmer. The tragedy may have hit them equally but social fault lines have remained or hardened in times of adversity.
The upper-caste dominated village of Deoli-Bhanigram has the ill fame of being referred to as a “village of widows”. As many as 54 people lost their lives, 32 of them married men. Sampati Devi lost her unmarried son Ankit Kumar. He was the lone earning member of the Dalit family that lives sandwiched between houses of upper caste families. “The upper-castes resumed working as priests and shopkeepers. Their circumstances are much better than before the tragedy. But we are left with nothing. We don’t own horses and mules. We don’t have any land or money either,” says Sampati Devi who breaks stones at construction sites. “The families of people who worked as priests got more money than other communities,” says Sampati alleging that she received Rs 5,00,000 unlike Suman and Sulekha who got Rs 7,00,000 each, a complaint that the district administration is looking into.
In the aftermath of the disaster, several NGOs started working in the region. Villages like Deoli-Bhanigram saw small and big NGOs operate at least for a year. But villages like Kholi and Khumera hardly got attention. Most women survivors have continued to subsist on government compensation. With the state receiving erratic rainfall in most cases agricultural land lies barren. In winter months of January and February 2018, the hill state received only 33.7mm of rainfall, 68 per cent lower than the expected 106.2mm.
“I have no husband. I have land but there are no rains. I would have liked to go to the city for work where there’s no taboo for widows or lower-caste, but I am illiterate,” says Reeta Devi (23), a Dalit widow of Lamgundi as she walks home with a heap of grass on her back.
There are unfulfilled promises of jobs for the widows of Kedarnath tragedy that bind both sides, the upper caste and the Dalit women like Neema Devi. “We aren’t the vote banks of political parties nor do we feature in their poll promises,” she says.
Although they level widespread and often inescapable destruction, natural disasters do not affect all people equally. Marginalised populations — including women — tend to be disproportionately negatively impacted. Five years on, in many parts of Uttarakhand the tragedy is ongoing.