Homeless in the Himalayan Cold

Himachal Flood

Starting from Delhi on a hot afternoon, I could feel the first chill of cold weather on reaching the lower hills of Himachal Pradesh in the evening. Winter has arrived early here, I felt. By the time I was resting in my home, I could not manage without a sweater and a quilt.

In such conditions one’s thoughts invariably go to the disaster affected homeless people in Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Jammu, Kashmir and other parts of the Himalayan region. The worst damage has been in Himachal Pradesh, where 2,944 houses have been entirely destroyed and 12,304 houses have been partially damaged. 7,250 cowsheds have also been destroyed or seriously damaged.  Himachal Pradesh has experienced as many as 72 flash floods during this year’s rainy season. Even in the last days of October big landslides were still being reported, as the one on NH 5 connecting Kinnaur, near Nathpa dam, when rocks and boulders covered a nearly 200 m stretch. Disasters in other parts of the Himalayan region have also resulted in many households becoming homeless, most of them for the first time in their life. In other cases, as in Joshimath (Uttarakhand), homelessness has also been caused by cracks appearing in houses as a result of recklessly executed construction projects. Then there are also the people displaced by civil strife, as in Manipur.

With the long and harsh winter ahead, one shudders to think about the difficulties including serious health risks thousands of households are going to face this year unless very substantial help can reach them very quickly now. As is well-known, the Himalayan winter can be much more harsh here, like the the flash floods are. It can be much more expensive to reconstruct houses here. The government help or compensatory payment is likely to be only a small fraction of what the affected people will need to get back a safe shelter again. In fact many people are still living in tents and cowsheds.

In addition over 600 school buildings have been damaged in Himachal Pradesh and students of many schools are now attending classes in make-shift places which lack essential facilities and where students have to sit on cold floors. These conditions, uncomfortable today, will become much more difficult and risky as the winter advances.

Clearly much more funds are needed for the relief and rehabilitation effort. The Himachal Pradesh government, a state already much indebted and in financial difficulties, has announced a package as best as it could manage but it is not adequate.  The Centre should clearly be more generous to the disaster affected Himalayan regions in their hour of great need. There should be no delay in announcing more funds. The state governments should also ensure that funds reach the needy as early as possible. In Himachal Pradesh there can be a 2 to 5% deduction on all salary payments and at least a 2% deduction on all contractual payments from November to January and this money should be sent to a dedicated fund from which it should be quickly transferred for disaster relief and rehabilitation. The dam and construction companies in whose case the responsibility for causing disaster situations can be clearly established should be asked to pay adequate compensatory payments and these should also be deposited in this fund. This is in addition to the normal funds for relief and rehabilitation. The union education ministry should be asked to release a separate payment for disaster affected schools and students. This is stated in the context of Himachal Pradesh as well as other parts of the Himalayan region badly affected by disasters.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.             


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