Tuesday, July 30, 2013

On the Risky Terrain - Women, Vulnerability and Disaster

06 July 2013: It has been raining since 5th noon, and it was just getting worse. I along with Rahul and Bharti went to meet few officers in the Block Administrative Office, took some data, and then proceeded towards Madkot, from where we should be going to a village called Devibagar, which was on the other side of the river. The roads were getting more damaged due to the rains, and in several places it was slippery. I was saying a prayer in my heart, as at several points I could feel that the wheels were just dragging on the wet slippery surface. When we were about four kilometers from Madkot, we saw that the road has been blocked as new debris had come down the mountain and few men were working at it. Seeing that on both sides vehicles had stopped and that the road looked very unsafe.... (we could see deep cracks appearing on the road which would after all fall into the ravine that had water cutting from below the road at over 70 feet down! It was frightening even to look at the water.

Seeing the situation we asked Bharti to return to Munsiyari, and we two men along with the IDBP soldier, began to walk towards Madkot. I kept looking in front of me and on road making sure that I am neither too close to the edge of the road nor closer to the mountain, and avoid water that had turned muddy by then. Suddenly, the soldier shouted at me, "Sir, Stop! STOP !" I stopped and turned back to him and asked, "What happened?" He said "You see the debris is coming down the hill from up? You need to look up as well!" We waited for the debris to fall, and then we jumped past that and we walked towards Madkot, wondering - "What a risky life is this! In flood prone areas, I should be careful of whirlwinds. But here what I have is - I need to look ahead of me, below me and above me, even to take a step forward!" Another prayer in heart : "God, please take me back home safely!"

After we crossed through Madkot, another three kilometers of walk to Devibagar. We stopped a gentleman in his late thirties or early forties who was walking with a young girl (approx 17 - 19 years), and asked him about how the disaster has impacted his life. He said that his house is safe, but food prices and transportation are the concern, and he did not want to talk to us because, pointing to the girl he said, he was taking his wife to the doctor! Alert, certainly in this place child marriage is rampant.

When we reached Devibagar and got into the Tourist guest house closer to the hot spring there, the eight families living there came forward, and we had very good discussion. The families took us around the affected area, spoke about how their houses were washed away by the river and how much of compensation they got etc. The children mentioned that they were studying in the Madkot school which has been washed away, and they are not sure where they would go to for schooling.  The families sounded desperate as they did not have any work and were living on the ration (relief food items and the money they got. The men and women kept mentioning that they are not getting work, even the road work. Their desperateness was on their eyes, looks and body language. I also noticed that this was the only village where I saw at least 6 young girls in their teens, which was not the case in the villages where we have visited so far, where I hardly saw a young girl. So, the question began to come to my mind:

Are these girls vulnerable to be trafficked? Why aren't many girls in other villages, including Madkot which is more thickly populated? Have the girls of those villages been already married off or trafficked? So, in that case, is Devibagar better than others - in protecting their girls?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Walk Down the Death Hill

05 July 2013: As we left our hotel a little later than usual : at 8.30 am, and we went to the local administrative office. One or two officials were beginning to come at about 9.00 am. We took some information from them about a relief camp in Dhapa and in Jimighat which functions as a transit relief camp. We decided to go to these places as they were next to each other: Dhapa camp along the road side, after which there is no road connection (as it has been cut off) and Jimighat down below the hill. We crossed Dhapa after about 50 minutes of drive on a bad damaged road, and went further for about a kilometer, beyond which we could not proceed. We decided to walk. Initially, the road wasn’t bad. As we began to walk down, we met two village travelers walking up. I stopped them and ask where they were heading to, where are they coming from and how long is the distance. One of them stopped to answer: We have been walking well beyond Martoli (closer to Indo-China border) for the last five days, and we shall reach Munsiyari today. There is no food in the hills, and so we have been walking, going past one transit camp after another so that we can get some work, live in a relative’s home, and have some food. They said that their families are in the ITBP camps and may be shifted by the army once the weather gets better. I told these men to wait for us at Dhapa camp so that we can give them a lift to Munsiyari when we return.

We then walked down towards Jimighat. It was a steep, almost 80 deg slope down hill. We were holding on to few roots and rocks in several places as the path was wet and slippery. It was like learning to walk like a little kid in all fours! The walk down the hill alone took full 40 minutes. It was a very tall mountain indeed! When we reached there we saw a kind of a little tent which the men there (who were going around smoking and looked drunk) said, “This is the relief camp!” When we introduced ourselves they brought a banner and hanged on it, and they were happy to get photographed. I walked and saw that it is just a single room structure with lots of holes, filthy, and dark. They were cooking food for lunch. I realized soon that these men were smoking hash, and were blowing it upon your nose! We also found a large notice on one side of it : “Hotel School mein hai” (which means, “The hotel has been shifted to the school !” So, where is the school? The school does not function for want of students. Due to repeated disasters and social issues most children are staying in Munsiyari town for studies. (This is an information that we could empirically verify, although people said that it is true that many families in upper hills keep their children in smaller towns.) There was a little bridge that connects the Milam sector with the main area next to this camp. People coming from the Milam sector can sit here, eat, relax and then walk ahead.  The bridge was in a very dilapidated condition and can break any moment. We visited few families in the neighborhood, spoke to them. I hardly saw women, and just a few children, in comparison to the number of men. I kept wondering where have they all gone? This place is a clear threat to children and women. (I heard on next day in Munsiyari that in the Jimighat camp, on 5th evening, after we had left, a woman was molested.)

The walk up was still more tiresome. We had to stop several times as our heartbeat went up and perspiring too much. On our way up, picked those two travelers at Dhapa camp, and traveled back to Munsiyari. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Madness at Madkot

04 July: Both the teams left at 6.15 am after a cup of black tea that the hotel thoughtfully provided,  and we separated after picking up an ITBP soldier each from the camp. I had Mr. Neeraj as our driver and Mr. Suresh, an ITBP soldier as our companion, along with Rahul and Bharati, my team mates. As the car climbed through the hills, Bharati took ill, and we stopped quite a few times, and at Thal for breakfast. When we reached Munsiyari at 12.30, our stay had been booked at KMVN guest house, a government run building. The lady at the front desk told us that the cost of the rooms would be 1250 per night. I was surprised that it is pretty costly with the rooms not so well maintained, with no AC etc. However, we thought of continuing to stay there. We visited the Munsiyari block office and had a brief by the Addl. District Magistrate Dr. Raghav Langer who was stationed there to coordinate the relief operations. He gave us a lot of information verbally asked one of the block officers to give further information to us in printed formats. As it was taking time, we thought of collecting the information on the next day, have lunch now (it was 3.00 pm), so that we can visit a village on the same day.

We asked Bharati to stay put at the hotel since she wasn’t feeling well, and we three men (me, Rahul and Suresh) proceeded to Madkot. Our journey to Madkot took over an hour, although the distance was hardly 16 kms. The road had been damaged at several locations, but it had been “mended”. When we crossed the river Gori just ahead of Madkot, we saw the crumbling village. Its school and several buildings had been damaged or gone in the water about 90 – 100 feet down the valley. We had discussions with families, shopkeepers, the village leader and finally we visited also the relief camp where 12 families whose houses had been fully damaged were living.

Madkot village is an entry point to several other villages, and so it had lots of shops and the houses were well built. My first impression was that the people of the village cannot be too poor here. Purely looking at the houses, there were about 30% of families who can be classified as poor, as other families lived on shops or jobs, and they seemed to be better off. We were even surprised that there were two hotels in the village! One of them was just on the river bed, and might be threatened soon if the river doesn’t change its course, and the other was a lot more interior and in a secure location.

The relief camp had been set up on an abandoned building by a failed / attempted hydro power station in a nearby location. When we visited the camp, we saw the place to be clean. After a brief with the staff at the camp, we went to visit the families in the camp.  (I am not discussing programmatic issues in this blog, because this is a personal one. And so such have been presented in official reports. Only human stories and personal experience are mentioned here.)

We saw a man on wheel chair, two other men, few children and a old lady, and we started talking to them. Other family members had gone into the village as they go about their normal work and they return whenever they think off to come to stay at the camp. They had come with all their properties as they saw the river beginning to eat up under their houses. We saw dish antennas, parked cars, heaters and even power generators! As I said earlier, many of these families were not poor. But nature had punished them, and have been left homeless and landless now. The three buildings in the camp had two floors each, and in each floor two families were staying! So, well set!

Where politics steps in: We were told that the local Member of the Legislative Assembly has told these families not to quit the camp as this place is better secured, unless and until the government gives them a better house! Arrogance of leadership.

Monday, July 22, 2013

First Impressions of the Disaster

03 July 2013 : I knew even before I left Dehradun for Pithoragarh that this district is not the worst affected. However, I also knew that I had not been sent here on a paid tour. The UN and government must have had a specific reason to put me on this visit to Pithoragarh. At the airport which had just a small little concrete roof of about 10ft x 10 ft passage way that had been converted into the control room with the district Collector Mr. Neeraj Kherwal IAS sitting and the 2nd Commandant of ITBP (Mr. Martolia, because he is from a village called Martoli) in Pithoragarh guiding the ITBP jawans and camps across the hills, and both of them giving briefs to the IAF helicopter captains….and several satellite phones and wireless systems set up to ensure flow of communication, and couple of tents and over 20 civilian and para-military vehicles lying on the side…. It all gave you an impression of you have landed in the midst of an English action thriller.
The district collector explaining about the disaster using map.

The Collector (also known as the District Magistrate) was very welcoming, honest about the disaster, explained the current situation through a map of the hills drawn by the ITBP that had been placed on a small display board. We could question him about the government’s response. Then we went to meet the District Disaster Management Officer Mr. B.S. Rana at his office, and thereafter to the ITBP camp for further discussion on the logistics. Mr. Martolia  took us into a large hall that is used for educating the young soldiers. The hall had a three dimensional replica of the region mentioning where the Indian villages are, borders are, various security camps are and where various passes and passage routes are. This was extremely important for us to understand which route we must be taking, and which we must avoid. This discussion was educative as well, as we decided to make a strategic change: Our team will be divided into two: two men will go to Dharchula and three of us will go Musiyari, and these two towns will be used as our bases to visit other damaged villages. As a guide and security, Mr. Martolia also offered to provide us with a soldier each so that each team is safe and comfortable in the unknown region.  (The maps we saw are security sensitive and so we were asked to delete them from cameras.)

We were tired as it was already 8.15 pm, and I had to update several persons about the present plans, logistics etc, We checked in at Punetha Inn after a little bargain on the rates. The manager of the hotel was accommodating, and we went to bed by 11.00 pm after a vegetarian meal.

Alert: Corruption in Airport

On 21 July, Sunday, I traveled from Kolkata to Delhi by Air India AI 763. I was to fly by the 11.10 am Jet Airlines flight to Dehradun from IGI Airport Terminal 3. As I went to check-in they saw that my suitcase weighed 19 kg, i.e. 4 kg more than permitted. The gentleman at the counter told me, you may shift 4 kg to your handbag as he gave me the Boarding Pass saying that he would issue me the luggage tag when I resubmit it. I rearranged a few things and I knew that I have not done much as there was not much space in the handbag too. A loader (the person who loads luggages) came to me and said he would get it weighed. When he saw that it was weighing 17 kg, he said, "Sir, you will have to pay Rs. 500 for the excess baggage. But I can get it done, you just give me some money!" I got a shock! Waaw....when did this kind of corruption get in? I planned to take the risk. I said, "Okay". He took the Boarding Pass from me.

He went to one of the counters, spoke to the guy on the check-in counter, and then got the luggage tag on my Boarding Pass, and got my luggage moving. As he was busy at the counter, I pulled out my Samsung SII Galaxy, switched on the audio recorder to capture whatever discussion may take place between me and him. He returned to give me the Boarding Pass and said, "See, it would have cost you 500. You give me 400 !" He stretched out his hand in front of so many passengers. I walked ahead, and he followed me. As soon as we were away from the lines, I pulled out two hundred rupee notes and two 50 rupee notes from my wallet and told him that I have only this much - Rs. 300. I also noted quickly in my mind the last four digits of one of the 100 rupee notes. He moved away quickly.

I too took a stroll around so that he does not begin to watch me, and then I asked one of the Jet Air attendants walking by for the Supervisor. He showed me towards the check-in counters. I knew that that is not the correct position for me. I walked up to another information desk and I told the gentleman there that I had to bribe someone and I want to make a complaint. He directed me to the GMR Information Desk at the Departure Hall. I narrated the event to the gentleman there. He was very quick. He asked me if I can show the location or the person. I said I can clearly identify him, and even the money! He picked up his wireless and started talking into it, "Delta ...calling....### Delta.... Over" in some kind of code language. In couple of seconds another gentleman with stern eyes came to the counter and the GMR person asked me to narrate the event and walk with them. By then another young lady in jeans joined us. I asked them, "Who are you?" They said, "We are from the Vigilance Department". I narrated the event once again, and I led them to the counter. I identified the loader who had by then moved away from there to another counter area. 

The vigilance officer called him and immediately in a fraction of second plucked his Identity Card. The loader's name is Jai Singh Meena. Hei, now he cannot escape and run out of the airport! He was checked, and they pulled out the money from his pockets, and the money was identified and matched. Then we were taken to another counter. I was asked to give a written complaint. Meanwhile we were joined by two more officers one from the Jet Airways and another person, a senior officer, who said that he is the "Inspector". I was handed over the money and then I practically ran for the flight as it was time to catch up! 

Beware of Corruption in Airports and anywhere. Fight it intelligently. Take time to fight it. Do not shy away. We do have good officers who can respond to situations responsibly.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Flying Through the Sleepy Mountains

On 2 July we had a meeting at SIDCUL, within the IT park, Dehradun with Additional Secretary, Disaster Management Department and other UN officials. We were briefed about the districts, given contact numbers in those districts, and divided into smaller teams to assess the situation in five different districts. In our team we were five members: Rahul Pandit, Dr. Abhijit B, Ms. Bharati S, and Mr. Subrat Dash, and me. I am to function as the team leader and we were scheduled to visit Pithoragarh district. I was informed by my friends that Pithoragarh is a very far off district, and might take about 15 – 17 hours of journey on road. Late night we were told that we would be taken by a helicopter, and I was given a number to contact at the airport.
An aerial view from the helicopter

On 3 July, at 9.00 am we left for Jolly Grant Airport. I was enquiring from the driver why this airport is named after a person called “Jolly Grant”, but he was not able to explain it. When we reached there, we were received by a messenger who took us through the security system in the airport. It was tough to get in because we had lot of materials that cannot normally be taken on a plane. The security personnel were strict. Once we proved our genuineness we were sent by a car to the helipad within the airport area. I met a gentleman called Mr. Sathya who is the Civil Aviation Manager at the airport. He is from Andhrapradesh, a southern state of India. I spent lot of time in his chamber to understand the hardships these gentlemen faced during the rescue operations after the flashfloods since 16 June and how they coped with it. He was narrating how it was tough on them as they spent hardly two to three hours of sleep, at times in the airport itself. Helicopter and aero plane maintenance, weather forecast follow up, VIP movement, extra number of planes carrying rescued people etc. kept the personnel at the normally sleepy Jolly Grant airport on tenderhooks. Our chopper took off around 12.20, more than an hour after hour scheduled time as the first flight of the chopper had delayed, and so had returned late, and then the captain had to take a break.

While all of us were fit with ear pads to reduce exposure to the chopper’s howling roar, I was fit with a pair of earphones and a microphone through which I can speak to the captain, in case of an emergency, and the captain can speak to me as well, if required. We were amused that the captain and the first officer were using manual maps to navigate through the forests and high mountains to fly to Pithoragarh. There are no ATCs in the area. So, on the alto meter I could see that the reading could be over 10,000 ft at a point, and suddenly it would show it is between 2000 – 4000 ft, and then it would rise to 8,000 and above in few seconds. The reasons are simple : we were flying over some very steep mountains, so when we were flying on a valley the alto meter showed that we were flying high, and suddenly, as we flew over a cliff, it was within a threatening distance. (No wonder, planes and helicopters crash on a bad weather day as they follow the manual maps which leaves lots of scope for human error.

As we landed in Pithoragarh airport, a  makeshift one, that is being repaired to make it into an all weather one, we were received by the District Collector and a very able leader: Mr. Neeraj Kherwal- which is another story.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Journey for Assessment

30 June 2013 : At last I was leaving for Uttarakhand. It had taken over 10 days for this plan to happen, because I had few other pending works to complete in Bengal, and then required an organization under whose banner I can move. As a RedR India member, I was scheduled to visit Uttarakhand and do a Emergency Needs Assessment of various districts in the first phase. I had been alerted by RedR India that I may have to stay on in Uttarakhand for about 2 - 3 months to help in the coordination of relief and response. When I reached Bolpur with my heavy suitcase and back-back, I found that my ticket had not been confirmed and that several trains are running late. The one that came when I was standing there was so badly packed that people were over-flowing from the train. It would have been impossible for me to go without a confirmed ticket. So, I hired a car and reached Kolkata where I stayed for the night.

01 July 2013 : Almost all my colleagues who would be part of the team had reached by 11.30 am, and I too reached around the same time in Delhi. We were checked in into a hotel, and then we proceeded to the UNICEF office Lodhi Road.  The meeting with UN team took place at the UNDP Conference room. I was a bit discouraged as the entire meeting dwelt around how to fill an assessment format, which was just a rework on the commonly accepted Rapid Assessment Format. This format is usually used within 24 hours or maximum of 72 hours of a disaster. But we were using it two weeks after the disaster had struck. I did not get the key to this, except that we were informed that this assessment will be collated, mapped, and will be shared with the government and other agencies. 

One of the members from the team said in confidence, "My son in the college could have done this survey!" He felt that it was almost sounding like a survey than an assessment. We returned back to the hotel and wondered why are we waiting here in Delhi....