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In washed away village in Uttarakhand, they look for signs of life — and gold

Superintendent of Police, Pithoragarh, R L Sharma said the priority of the rescue workers is to find missing persons.

Written by MAYURA JANWALKAR | Bastari | Updated: July 11, 2016 7:40:49 pm
uttarakhand cloudburst, cloudburst uttarakhand, uttarakhand landslide, what is cloudburst, cloudburst process, india monsoon, uttarakhand deaths, uttarakhand cloud burst deaths, uttarakhand death toll, uttarakhand rains, uttarakhand rainfall, uttarakhand news, india news Rescue operation underway at Bastari village. (Express Photo: Praveen Khanna)

With the sun shining bright on Wednesday afternoon, 65-year-old Chandra Ballabh is feeling lucky. Perched on a boulder atop the debris where his three-bedroom home used to be, he points to a spot, and eight rescue workers from the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) start shovelling.

“That is where my gold should be. If this is the room next to the cattle shed and this is where they found our utensils, the gold should also be in this spot,” says Ballabh, a frail man who sells tea for a living.

Watch Video: Uttarakhand Cloudburst: Visuals Of The Rescue Operations In Bastari village

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About 200 metres away, two JCB vehicles work ceaselessly on a slope where the village of Bastari stood until five days ago — before it was washed away in a cloudburst. They continue their search for eight missing persons, including two children aged eight and ten. According to the District Disaster Management Authority in Pithoragarh, 16 bodies have been recovered so far.

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Ballabh, who lives with his wife Janaki Devi, 56, says he was fortunate to survive the cloudburst that washed away seven brick and concrete homes in the village, mostly occupied by the Bhatt community. As he tries to pick up the pieces of his life that slid down the hill in the devastating rain, he says he is determined to find his life’s savings.

Pithoragarh: Army jawans search for survivors in the mud and debris of a destroyed house in landslide-hit, at Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand on Saturday.PTI Photo(PTI7_2_2016_000157B) Pithoragarh: Army jawans search for survivors in the mud and debris of a destroyed house in landslide-hit, at Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand on Saturday.PTI Photo(PTI7_2_2016_000157B)

“There were gold earrings, a necklace and bangles that belonged to my wife and daughters-in-law. Those are all the valuables we have. And while there is still a chance, I will keep trying to find them,” he says.

To help him, the men from the SSB continue to dig deeper. He picks up pots that they pull out from under the mud. “This looks all right,” he says, gazing at a pressure cooker without a lid. “We can use it to heat water.”

About 160 families from 15 villages were affected by the cloudburst. Twenty-nine families from Bastari have been accommodated in temporary rehabilitation camps in Singhali village, 12 km away.

Basanti Devi, 50, stands on another debris cliff, from where one end of her erstwhile roof juts out. “This was our home. On the day of the incident, one side of the village felt the land slipping away and they ran out of their homes. They were rescued and brought into the largest house in the village. That family took everyone in. But in the next cloudburst that took place at 6:15 am, their entire two-storey house was washed away,” she says.

“We have been accommodated in the primary school at Singhali. But we don’t know whether we will continue to stay there after the schools reopen,” she says.

Superintendent of Police, Pithoragarh, R L Sharma is at the site of the devastation, monitoring the recoveries made by rescue workers and the JCB vehicles. He says the priority of the rescue workers is to find missing persons. “Eight people are still missing and we trying our best to trace them. There are 72 rescue officers from the civil police and fire services, 15 from the PAC, 35 from the state disaster rescue force, 85 from the SSB and about 85 to 90 from the ITBP involved in rescue operations,” Sharma says.

He says the rescue operations would continue for at least two more days: “We will stop only after the villagers feel satisfied.”

The winding mountain roads that lead up to Bastari were levelled to make them motorable a day before Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat visited the village. The loosened soil, marshes and tree roots facing the roadside, however, warn about the devastation that struck higher up on the road.

The prospect of building their lives from scratch seems daunting to Ballabh and Basanti, two of the many survivors of the devastation that affected 15 villages in Pithoragarh. They have found hope in the rescue workers, who have handed over gold, silver and cash recovered from the debris to their rightful owners.

Inspector Bikashchandra Biswas from the SSB says, “Today, we found a pair of silver anklets near the river. We handed them to the police to return to the owners. We rescued live animals and moved them to safety, too.”

A steel drawer recovered from the debris sits unclaimed in the middle of the vast mountain of rubble. It contains school notebooks, a double-lined cursive writing book, a Hindi book titled Apraadh aur Shahadat and silver paper plates like the ones used at children’s birthday parties. A school note book has a ‘Shakespearean proverb’ written in neat handwriting. Its meaning is written in the form of a ‘long answer type question’.

“Sweet are the uses of adversity is a Shakespearean proverb… During the time of trouble and suffering, man’s character is revealed and tested. Persons who face the suffering coolly and find ways to conquer it,” the notebook reads.

The ‘proverb’ in the notebook shows up at a time when Bastari needs it the most. But with lives lost and buried under the loose soil and boulders, the notebook has found no takers yet.

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