Twenty one volunteers, seven from Hyderabad and the rest from Bangalore and Chennai, divided themselves into four groups and visited different villages in Uttarakhand region battered by torrential rains and landslides. Everywhere they went, there were harsh reminders of destruction. Bridges had been washed away and rubble filled up what were once narrow pathways. These volunteers trekked long distances, sometimes running for their lives as they witnessed landslides and slept on damp floors in ruined homes.
'We surveyed the situation in different villages to understand the long-term requirements,' says Swathi Ram, Hyderabad coordinator of Youth For Seva (YFS). They also provided relief material by distributing ‘family kits’ that included stoves, vessels and blankets (each kit is valued at Rs.14,000, purchased from fund collected towards relief work), but the larger task was to look at long-term measures.
The education sector, the volunteers feel, requires immediate help. 'Many village folks are eager to send their children to school, even if it means having to travel to neighbourhood towns or villages. Many schools have been washed away,' says Shobhit Mathur. The team was delighted to learn that parents hadn’t given in to gender bias and wanted to educate their girls. 'We met girls studying in high schools; we met parents wanting to see their girls self-sufficient. For that, schools have to be rebuilt in many areas,' Swathi points out.
Volunteers met villagers who took the disaster in their stride, neither complaining nor blaming Nature for their predicament. 'Some people wondered if Ganga wanted their fields and took it away; they wondered if they had done something to hurt Nature and this was Nature’s way of showing disapproval,' adds Swathi.
The YFS team made it to Uttarakhand by chance this year. Each year, a contingent of volunteers from different cities plans a yatra. This year, they were deciding between Kanyakumari and North East. The devastating floods in Uttarakhand made them reconsider their plans. They set off to Uttarakhand on August 9 on a 10-day trip.
The parent organisation, Seva International, was already in the State, and served as their field partners. In most places they visited, the volunteers were met with warmth. There was no bitterness, says Swathi. The interior villages, inaccessible by roads, faced no danger of becoming sites of disaster tourism. There were stories of loss — of people, cattle and means of livelihood. Volunteers saw women, with children on their backs, trekking the slopes for food, water and cooking gas. 'A cylinder costing Rs. 400 in the foothills is sold for Rs.1200 uphill. A kilogram of sugar is sold at Rs. 80. We felt guilty when they offered us tea; we knew what it cost them,' says Shobit.
Sasidhar, who has travelled to many disaster zones including Bhuj after the earthquake in 2001, says the living conditions in Uttarakhand are by far the worst he has witnessed. 'In other regions, there were roads. Here, three months after the floods, many areas remain unreachable. The region gets four to five hours of rainfall even now, which hampers relief work,' he says.
For young volunteers Vikram and Rajasekhar, this trip was an opportunity to see compassionate people who came to Uttarakhand from different parts of the country. 'You don’t need to be part of an organisation to reach out. We met a volunteer who had come all the way from Bangalore on his own; he had first visited a few areas to assess the damage, went back and bought relief material,' he says. 'We met several such people doing voluntary work,' adds Rajasekhar.
As the YFS group spoke to different stakeholders — homemakers, business people, students and women knitting woollen products to make a living — they saw an outpouring of compassion everywhere: A student had helped 200 people to safety making multiple trips on his two-wheeler; another villager carried a Hyderabadi who suffered a heart attack all the way to the foothills on his back to find medical aid. The Hyderabadi recouped and returned home safe.
Shobhit, Swathi and the team are now focusing on the task at hand. 'Apart from the education sector, we are thinking of ways to help with entrepreneurial skills. It is important to help people who’ve lost their means of livelihood,' says Swathi.
(If you wish to help, visit www.youthforseva.org or email [email protected])