Stranded in the rainwashed hills of Uttarakhand, Suman Dubey wonders why it had to be so.
And this (above) is what it was from about the same place after two days of incessant rain.
On the Almora bypass, Bhupal, our trusted Kausani taxi-walla, got a call to say that a long unstable stretch of the Kathgodam-Almora road by the river had been breached and we should take the Mauna-Ramgarh route. So, we turned off and made good headway in spite of the rain, which had resumed, past waterfalls tumbling on the road and through several stretches of falling stones. This waterfall gave every passing vehicle a thorough washing.
Then, suddenly, just before Mauna we were pulled up short by a line of waiting vehicles. Bhupal learned that a culvert had caved in; a jeep-taxi, trying to negotiate what was left of it, had managed to get one wheel off it and collapsed immovably on the culvert. There were landslips further ahead which a JCB (bulldozer/digger contraption, that is a life-saver in the hills in these wet and unstable times) was at work but the road was effectively closed.
It was 4:30 pm by now (train departure 8:40 pm) Was there enough time to still make it? Bhupal evidently thought there was, and setting a searing pace we backtracked to Almora and Ranikhet, adding 70 or more kms, eating into dwindling precious time. Daylight turned to dusk to darkness as we crossed the Khairna bridge and turned up towards Bhowali, thus spending over two hours just to avoid the landslide that had diverted us in the first place. Deceptive normalcy descended briefly — till Rati Ghat and yet another landslide. Happily, another JCB turned up and in an hour we were on our way again following speeding, overloaded cars carrying families eager to get to the plains and out of the messy roads and weather.
Some hope! I had already kissed the train goodbye, but barely 3-4 km on, we turned a corner to come to a screeching halt — yet again — behind a lengthening line of vehicles. Two nasty landslides lay close ahead and — much worse — the bridge at Niglat near Bhowali had been damaged beyond quick repair. It was after 8 pm and nothing was moving. One by one, the lights in the buses ahead of us went off and the only sounds left were the rain and that of what is usually a trickle of a stream now roaring like a mountain torrent. I surprised myself by sleeping reasonably well in the back seat of the Sumo, Bhupal in front.
In an unusual twist, fate had smiled on us. Of all the places to be halted in our tracks, we had fetched up bang opposite my wife’s absolute favourite spot on the whole route from Delhi to Kausani: Plantiss Nursery! Having spent long hours buying plants there, I realised things weren't after all hopeless.
Meanwhile, a landslide on the road behind had effectively boxed us in. In middle of the night, a bus had moved between our Sumo and Plantiss from just behind after a large rock fell on its side, mercifully missing the windows behind which a full load was asleep or whiling away the time. Drivers who ply the road constantly have many such stories; two years ago, a falling stone had shattered the windscreen of our car.
By this time, my wife had alerted the world to my predicament. Friends and well-wishers began to call — so much so that my phone battery was soon alarmingly drained. But two separate calls to the owner of Plantiss and his son, Sidhant Chadha, fortunately resident on the complex, ensured that we could step out of the Sumo and into relative comfort. Tea and sandwiches followed by lunch — and we were in good shape for whatever was to come. (In contrast, the occupants of the buses, cars and sundry vehicles, were trudging in the rain looking for shops up ahead and stocking up on Kurkure, chips, whatever they could lay their hands on.) The hours went by swiftly even as the rain continued relentlessly (halting only during the dark hours of the night.) Late in the afternoon, another JCB worked its way up the road clearing the landslides.
The mélange of cars, buses and trucks, (including one with Shyamant Bahl, professional classical guitar player and son of old friends) meanwhile moved up 2 km to Kainchi Dham, a large temple complex, where the local administration managed finally to make arrangements to offer succour to the numerous children, women, elderly and others trapped by the Niglat bridge closure. The next morning at the crack of dawn I reached Niglat. On the way, we passed the ruin of a dhaba I had once stopped at, washed away by yet another trickle grown to mountain torrent by its side. Of fallen and even falling rocks, trees, branches, and water washing over the road there was no dearth here as elsewhere.
Walking across the bridge — itself a temporary Army Bailey bridge put up after last year’s September deluge destroyed the pukka bridge — it was evident that this route was not likely to be fully restored in a hurry: one side is almost completely washed away by the rushing water. Indeed, repairs eventually took several days.
But the story doesn't end quite yet. At a spot a few km out of Bhimtal towards Kathgodam, most of the road had simply broken off and plunged hundreds of meters into the valley. Small vehicles managed to pass, but looking back I could see stones and earth still peeling away. Sure enough, within the hour, the road was breached for several days. Is there something wrong with our road and bridge construction? Whole hillsides were destroyed along with roads last September and the story last month was not that different. There's no denying that population pressure, haphazard construction, probably poor road engineering, over-use of roads, over-construction — all these are playing havoc and nature is striking back. Who, in authority, is listening?
The locals say they haven’t seen rivers in such spate since 1993 and sure enough Bhimtal lake was higher than I have ever seen it, and as the pictures show, the Kosi near Moradabad was looking like a junior Brahamaputra! Happily, a fast train brought me home from Kumaon in less than 5 hours. But even the Railways have suffered: an erosion of the tracks near Haldwani had last month obliged trains to terminate at Lal Kuan, 25 km short of Kathgodam. What with people stuck in the hills or unwilling to make it to Lal Kuan, I had no problem with a berth. Which is just as well: for three days the Kingfisher flight to Pantnagar had been cancelled and the main road through Rampur and Moradabad was flooded. Now, the roads are once again usable but sadly it now takes less and less climatic or natural disturbance to sever these fragile lifelines for the hill people. Who, once again, in authority, is paying heed?
(The writer is an increasingly concerned mountain lover and explorer, and a part-time Kumaon resident)