The Tragedy of Uttarakhand: A Tour Report


Translated from original Hindi -

Immediately after the 16th – 17th June 2013 tragedy,  I went to the flood affected regions of the Alaknanda and Mandakini rivers three times, and after that I toured the Pindar river region, the Saryu and the Ramganga East areas of Bageshwar district, going up to the Gori – Dhauli Esat, Elagad and Kali rivers of Pithoragarh district. After this I also went to the Dhanarigad and Bhagirathi rivers of Uttarkashi district going up to Thatyud which is at the confluence of three rivers of which Aglad is the main.

During these travels, while other friends and colleagues joined us in the various sectors contributing their intimate knowledge of the local terrain and community and thereby making this tour more insightful, Om Prakash Bhatt accompanied me in all the separate trips. In the Mandakini valley Ramesh Pahadi, Anushuya Prasad Malashi and Ramesh Chandra Jamloki came along while in the Alaknanda sector our associates were Prem Ballabh Bhatt, Darman Singh Negi and Bhupal Singh Negi. Our associates on the Bhagirathi tour were Surat Singh Rawat at Thatyud, while in Tehri  district it was Manoj Rawat, and in the extended tour of Saryu, Ramganga East, Gori, Dhauli East and other rivers in the Kumaun Mandal our team included Shekhar Pathak, Samir Banerjee, Rajender Singh Bisht (of HGVS) and Jagat Singh. Separately Om Prakash Bhatt travelled to Kedarnath, the now destroyed Chorabari lake and the upper regions beyond Kedarnath. His documentation includes pictures of the higher regions of the Himalaya, glacier fed rivers and the ruptures in the glaciers in this regions.


A lot has been written about the immense loss of life, property and infrastructure in the Kedarnath, Rambada and Gaurikund area. The focus of most reporting and analysis has been concentrated on the Mandakini basin. But in the confusion and furore of suffering of people, destruction of properties etc., a few crucial issues have either been ignored or conveniently forgotten.

  • The first is that what happened around in the Mandakini river basin happened in various degrees of ferocity in all the river basins stretching from the Yamuna in the west to the Kali in the east.
  • Secondly while we are quick to blame fate and the fickleness of nature, we seem to gloss over and ignore the import of the pernicious development strategies of the human agency.

While we seem to get bogged down by the details of what happened, we seem to simultaneously defer answering some critical and core issues. To enumerate some:

  1. Is the problem restricted to Kedarnath or is it wide spread stretching over most of Uttarakhand, and beyond to western Nepal and eastern Himachal?
  2. Are the present floods unique or have there been similar floods and destructions earlier?
  3. Have the intensity of havoc increased in the last decades?
  4. Is it a natural phenomenon in that the Himalayas are a young and fragile region?
  5. Are human beings equally or more to blame for what happened?
  6. If human intervention in the name of development and creation of assets and wealth is one of the major reason behind the catastrophe then who is to be held responsible?
  7. Is it the local community, the investor – investment cohort, the ever increasing religious and secular tourist and their self-serving demands, or the government in particular the environment ministry which is the designated sentinel authorized to monitor and sanction development schemes which in the Himalaya require unavoidable environment sensitivity?

During our tour of the region we held discussions with local people; we not only heard from them their eye witness account of 16th – 17th June, on the basis of such narratives we were able to acquire information about the factors, reasons and the impact of the tragedy. It was told by people that army and para-military forces did remarkable work in relief work and saved many lives. Local people also helped pilgrims and they appreciated the work of ITBP. In the difficult situation BRO people also worked with all involvement. Different local organisations and local NGOs and VOs also helped needy people. At many places the local villagers arranged the stay and food for many days.

Mandakini Region

Pre-eminently the Mandakini appears to be a calm river. Of and on its tributaries have gone on a spat and influenced by the heavy sediments brought them, the Mandakini too had got agitated and pulsed.

On 26th– 27th July 1961 due to heavy rains the Damargad, a tributary of the Mandakini had got agitated and amplified so much that it had obstructed the Mandakini near Bhiri. At that time Dadua village was destroyed in a massive landslide in which more than three dozen people died and many animals perished. In 1979 a massive landslide occurred around Kuntha and Badhav in the watershed of the Kyonjagad River a tributary river of the Mandakini, and here too about forty people died and property was destroyed in an unprecedented scale. The ferocity of the Kyonjagad had an impact on the Mandakini too. The 1991 Uttarkashi earthquake had an impact on the Mandakini valley and its aftermath saw house destroyed and cracks on roads and mountain sides. Even in Kedarnath houses were destroyed while some had cracks on them and there are reports that four tourists died. According to local people, they had heard the boom of fracturing glaciers in the source regions of the Mandakini.

In August 1998 near Ukhimath, a hill had collapsed and Bhainti and Baruwa villages had been totally smothered under falling debris.  Further due to obstruction a lake had formed in the Madmaheshwarganga, a tributary of the Mandakini. In the whole area due to major and minor landslides sixteen villages were affected and more than hundred people had died.

On 16th– 17th 2013 June heavy rains in the region around Chorabari Lake, Kedar Dome, Kedarkhunta, Sumeru Parvat from where the Mandakini originates, led to the catastrophic floods due to which Kedarnath, Rambada and Gaurikund experienced terrible destruction in which people died, animals were killed and property destroyed. The barrage constructed for the hydroelectricity project downstream at Rampur managed to contain the flood waters for some time forming a temporary lake. When this lake breached it swept Sonprayag and Rampur destroying houses and property in an unprecedented scale while smothering dozens of buses and cars in its wake. Therefore due to the outburst of this temporary lake, the barrage was destroyed and the floods rendered many villages unstable in the lower reaches of the river. Further on, the deluge on the Mandakini again got restricted by another barrage at Kund in the lower reaches of Ukhimuth. Here too destroying the barrage, the raging Mandakini gaining momentum created massive catastrophe in which life, property, bazars and infrastructure was destroyed. The enormous quantities of gravel dumped along the Mandakini river bank by the hydroelectricity projects was swept away by the river. Due to these added sediments the pace of the river’s flow had increased enormously; consequently while some bazaars and villages from Kund to Tilbara were consumed by the river the existence of many others has become precarious.

The Madhuganga (Kali nadi) a tributary of the Mandakini, which originates from the glaciers east of Kedarnath, also assumed catastrophic proportions, and with the destruction of the barrage downstream at Kotma village, the Kali too became ferocious destroying Kalimuth a historical and religious place and the adjacent area.


Khirongad a tributary of the Alaknanda with which it merges at Bainakuli in the lower parts of Hanuman Chatti, originates from the glaciers and glacial lakes in the lower reaches of Mt. Neelkanth and acquires most of its water from Uniyanital. After the Unianital filled up due to the outbursts in its upper reaches, the Khirongad pulsed and then destroying forests on both banks, for some time it even obstructed the Alaknanda at Bainakuli.

Due to the floods houses and agricultural fields of Dangadra village were destroyed and Khirongaon also lost houses and fields. Not just this, in Bainakuli located in the upper reaches of the Alaknanda, houses, agricultural fields and forests were also destroyed.

Further up, destroying the Vishnuprayag hydroelectric project barrage which was blocking it, the Alaknanda assuming furious proportions destroyed Laambagad bazar and village. And destroying the fields of Pandukeshwar the river created terrible havoc in Govindghat in which houses and hotels were destroyed even as the Gurudwara got submerged in silt.

The accumulated debris of the Vishnuprayag project added to the ferocity of the Alaknanda. The Bhyundarganga which emerges from the lower reaches of Hemkund went on a spat from above Ghanghariya and destroyed Bhyundar and Pulna villages ravaging houses agricultural fields and killing cattle. The Bhyundarganga merges with the Alaknanda a little beyond Govindghat.

In the same way the debris of the Tapovan – Vishnuprayag and Vishnugad – Pipalkoti hydroelectricity project near Helang added to the destructive capacity of the Alaknanda and smothered the houses with silt along the Banks of the Alaknanda at Birahi, Karnaprayag and Rudraprayag.

Alaknanda after Rudraprayag

At Rudraprayag the Mandakini merges with the Alaknanda. After this the raging Alaknanda picked up the debris accumulated by the Shrinagar hydroelectric project inundated Shrinagar extensively depositing sediment on the houses.


The River Bhagirathi originates from the Gomukh glacier. Into this the Jadganga converges near Bhairo Ghati and later they continue cutting through sheer rocks. Some ten kilometres downstream near Dharali Bazar the Ksheerganga merges with it.

On 16th – 17th June the glacier fed, normally placid Ksheerganga flooded massively, depositing more than five feet of silt on houses, vehicle and so on at Dharali bazaar and village. The flooding which occurred in the Didsarigad a tributary of the Bhagirathi destroyed houses and agricultural fields of Didsari village; it also impeded for some time the flow of the Bhagirathi. When the river broke free, the ensuing floods caused havoc downstream. Due to the flooding of the Jalandhari gad a tributary of the Bhagirathi, orchards, fields and houses were destroyed in Bagoli and Harsil villages. The Dhanarigad converges with the Bhagirathi near Dunda. The Dhanarigad also destroyed the fields, irrigation canals and drinking water project of Dhanaripatti. Similarly the Sauragad also engendered enormous losses.

Yamuna Watershed

Near Thatyud of Tehri district, the Pali Gaad and the Bel Ganga merge with the Aglad River. The Aglad then joins the Yamuna River at Yamuna Bridge. Landslides and floods in the catchment areas of these three rivers have destroyed houses and fields in over forty villages. Similarly in the Yamuna valley beyond Badkot at kharaadi Bazar, more than three dozen houses and shops were destroyed and here too the debris of the hydroelectric project increased the lethal impact of the floods.

Back to Alaknanda Watershed

Due to landslides while there was loss in many places in the watershed region of the Nandakini a tributary of the Alaknanda, people lost lives in both the watersheds. Similar situation prevailed in Mainagad – Kalpaganga where life and property was lost. There was massive destruction in the catchment areas of the Pindar a tributary of the Alaknanda, which originates in the Pindari glacier and merges with the Alaknanda at Karnaprayag. Mainly, massive destruction was experienced by Narayanbagad and Tharali Bazaar, and their future remains jeopardised because of more recent landslides which can become the cause of future havoc.

Saryu River (Bageshwar)

The Saryu River originates in the higher reaches of the Bageshwar district. Although not a glacier fed river, collecting the winter snows of the higher peaks and a number of small and large rivers along its course it finally merges with the Ramganga East at Rameshwar.

People consider the Saryu and its tributary valleys a very productive region. But in the last few years, a lot of the agricultural fields and the irrigation channels have been destroyed due to the accumulation of the debris of the hydroelectricity projects, use of dynamites in the construction of head-race tunnels and so on, leading to a negative impact on the greenery of the region and increase in social unrest.

This year too, due to torrential rains the accumulated debris of two electricity projects added impetus to the floods, and the Saryu also flooded resulting in the agricultural channels and drinking water projects coming to an end and destruction of agricultural fields and houses. Near Reethabagad the Khairgad created havoc in the Saryu and here four people lost their lives.

The Saryu is one of the major rivers which are not glacial fed. As such it depends on percolation and the discharge of the various small streams and rivulets flowing into it. Thanks to the various hydro-power projects the road from Bharadi to Saung is in a very bad state. The dam construction and the tunnelling work of the various hydro-power projects have created havoc as far as the geomorphology of the region. The constant drilling, use of explosives and dumping of excavated debris has destabilized the hill slopes, blocked the flow of the river. The use of explosives has led to fracturing of the impermeable rock strata resulting in the drying of perennial streams and water sources.

Consequently the people of Bharadi have lost both their drinking and irrigation water sources. The massive amounts of debris being dumped into the river are in turn ruining the agricultural fields along the river banks. Adding to the problem is the accompanying deforestation which is leading the monkeys and wild pigs to raid farms. Not surprisingly most farmers are being forced to think of giving up farming. Farming has always been a sure source of employment and well being of the local villages.

The local people had agitated against one of the phases of the three phases of the project given to various contractors. While work on that particular project remains suspended, work on the other phases continues. Interestingly for an employment starved state, most labourers working on the hydro-power projects are temporary migrants from outside the state, housed in terrible hovels and involved in enormously hazardous jobs. Our discussions with the local people revealed a few other seminal issues. On the hillsides along every river and their tributaries one can see the marks of landslides of varying intensities. These landslides blocked the smooth flow of the river and on breaching flooded the adjacent river bank agricultural fields, or tended to change their course cutting into agricultural fields and hillsides.

This year due to heavy rainfall and snowmelt in the upper alpine reaches, most rivers seem to have experienced floods. Moreover following late and heavy spring snowfall the high attitude alpine soils had remained saturated causing amplification of runoff during the June heavy rainfall.

The places particularly affected are the recently built roads and the houses, shops etc. which have come up along these roads. These roads are built on bagad or old sand banks with layers of gravel and pebble. Villagers normally build their villages and houses away from the river. But many have started moving close to the river to benefit from the commerce the roads running close to the rivers bring. This has been the undoing of many.

As far as the hydro-power projects are concerned, in the long run the problem can only worsen. They will most probably be left with tons of loose excavated debris, dumped on their agricultural lands, commons and forests. They might end up losing their perennial water sources due to the blasting. The large amounts of rock, cobble and sand required for constructing the dams and shoring the tunnels will be quarried locally. This will mean scarcity in the future. Sand is the sponge that holds water. This ensure habitat for the aquatic life. Once the river goes into the tunnels it is inevitable that most of this life will be lost.

Ramganga East

The Ramganga East, which splits the Pithoragarh and Bageshwar districts in upper part, originates in the Namik and Hiramani glaciers. Traversing through Bageshwar and Pithoragarh districts, near Rameshwar it joins the Saryu, and flowing further joins the Kali near Pancheswar only to become the Sarda at Tanakpur and later Ghaghra to ultimately join the Ganga at Chhapra in Bihar.

The Ramganga from its source to Thal, changing it course a number of times, created a lot of havoc. People’s houses and fields were destroyed and because of landslides some areas have become unstable. But interestingly Ramganga has no dams.  Maybe due to this, damages in this region have been relatively less.

Pithoragarh (Gori, Elgad, Kali, Dhauli East)

After Ramganga we went to Gori, Elagad, Kali and Dhauli East via Shama, Kweeti, Kalamuni, Munshiari, Madkote, Tejam, Didihat, Ogla, Jauljeebi, Balwakot, Dharchula, Tapovan, Tawaghat, Pangla and so on. The situation had same or similar core issues.

Primarily the Gori River originates from the Milam, Bamras and other glaciers and drawing the Gunthagad, Ralamgad, Madganga, Seragad and other rivers joins the Kali River at Jauljeebi. Right from its origin the Gori had assumed ferocious proportions. And as it proceeded it destroyed everything that came in its way. It destroyed Madkot bazar situated on its left bank and upper reaches, and as it proceeded it destroyed fields, roads and infrastructure. In this way there was a catastrophic flood in the Gori from Khilach, Lilam to Jauljeebi. The Gori even pushed the course of the Kali River towards the left. Even now you can see massive boulders strewn all along.

From Jauljeebi to Tawaghat the Kali River has created enormous havoc. On both the banks it destroyed houses, fields, roads, bridges which came in its path. In all this, enormous loss was witnessed at Balwakot, Kalika, Dobata, Dharchula, Elagad, and Nai Basti (the new settlement).

The Dhauli East River whose catchment are the glaciers and the higher ranges of Darma valley, created enormous havoc at Sobla, Khet and adjoining areas and then joining the Kali river amplified its runoff which in turn led to destruction downstream.  Here too the debris deposited along the river banks by the on-going projects added to the destructive potential of the Dhauli.

Himalaya – Proginitor and Fragile 

The Himalaya is spread from east to west for over 2500 kms in length and from 250 to 400 kms in breadth and is the source of three of our main rivers- Ganga, Bramhaputra and Indus along with their innumerable tributaries. Forty three percent of the river basins of these three rivers fall within our country; while sixty three percent of this enormous water in the Indian part of the Himalaya is flowing, the rest infiltrates and saturates the soil. The soil, water and vegetation of the Himalaya can also be perceived as the progenitor which influences the season and weather. In spite of all this it remains highly sensitive.

It is said that it has three major fault lines; the main being the Main Central Thrust (MCT), which passes through populated areas, is active even now and from time to time earthquakes remind us of the fragile conditions. The local people have to live with the consequence of this fragility. But the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that it has started affecting the adjoining plain areas. Moreover the disturbances in the weather and seasons and the processes of massive developmental activities has only increased the scope of potential havoc. The impact of deteriorating weather massive destruction to a large extent is visible in the central Himalaya. In June 2013 the Ganga and its tributaries experienced catastrophic floods, in which thousands of helpless travellers, pilgrims, and local people perished, their cattle perished, movement and transport systems were destroyed, thousands of villages were demolished and their livelihoods has become doubtful. All this happened and has been perceived in Uttarakhand.

Uttarakhand region

The Uttarakhand region is spread from the Kali River which separates it from Nepal on one side and to the west with Himachal Pradesh where Yamuna and Tons rivers make the border. The tributaries of the Ganga such as the Yamuna, Bhagirathi, Bhilangana, Mandakini, Nandakini, Pindar, Alaknanda, Saryu, Ramganga East, Gori, Dhauli East and Kali and their numerous tributaries spread all over, emerging from numerous glaciers play an important role in keeping it perennial.

As per the ‘2011 Study Group on Himalayan Glaciers’,  52 glaciers in the catchment of the Yamuna, 258 in the Bhagirathi, 407 glaciers in the Alaknanda and 271 in the catchment of the Ghagra (Gori, Dhauli East and Kali rivers) all drain into this area. Similarly amongst and around these glaciers there are about 127 glacial lakes of various proportions.

Beyond these are the Bugyals, meadows which stretch right up to the timberline. These are covered with wild flowers and wild medicinal herbs.

After this up to six to seven thousand feet are forests whose trees besides having medicinal properties are broad leafed too which helps in controlling the destructive capacity of snow and rain.

Protective traditions of uttarakhand

To protect these high altitude regions, experienced and wise people have evolved all encompassing traditions.

These traditions restrict shouting, wearing red clothes, wearing shoes, playing the drums and so on. Plucking and breaking immature plants is forbidden. Not only is this, littering too is prohibited in this region. Behind these traditions we can see the incorporation of considerable thought, consciousness and local wisdom. While these have not been established by some state dictate or official proclamation, nevertheless these sentiments by associating them with religion have become incorporated into local traditions and it is also appended that not following them will lead to being troubled by the forest spirits. If somebody needs medicinal herbs from the upper Himalaya then it is permitted only after proper earnest entreaty. More or less in many areas even today these traditions are followed. These types of traditions must have been conceived to protect glaciers, glacial lakes, bugyals and the local flora, fauna and the soil of such sensitive regions.

Himalayan calamities

For reasons that the Himalaya has always been sensitive, adding to which has been the frequent major and minor earthquakes, the 6.5 Richter scale 1991 earthquake at Uttarkashi, the 1999 Chamoli earthquake measured at more than 6 on the Richter scale have been very destructive. Besides these, minor earthquakes occur regularly. People might not see any immediate impact of these minor earthquakes, but they do influence glaciers, glacial lakes, rivers, forests and the geomorphology which then manifest as violent outbursts at various intervals and get termed as natural disasters.

For example in the year 1893 a hillside collapsed on the Birahi river damming and thus blocking it and thereby creating an unstable lake which was known as the Birahi Taal. A year later the dam burst whose impact was felt from the Birahi Tal to Haridwar, but the foresight of the then administration restricted any human loss. This can be considered a natural calamity.

In 1970 there was catastrophic flood in the Alaknanda, when remaining  Birahi or Gauna tal broke. It was reported that the areas around Kunwaripass  in Chamoli district had experienced eighteen inches of rainfall in a day leading to enormous loss in the various riverine tracts along the Kunwaripass. In this beginning from Rishiganga to Haridwar 6 motor able bridges, 16 pedestrian bridges, 10 kilometres of motor able road were destroyed, dozens of people died, 25 buses were washed away, about 500 acres of agricultural land was inundated and scores of animals too, perished. Moreover for over a stretch of more than ten kilometres, the upper Ganga canal was immersed in silt. This flood was less natural and more manmade. The main reason behind this flood was the cutting of trees in the catchment areas of rivers, after which to save the forests the Chipko movement was launched;  the pressure of this movement helped stop deforestation which even scientists have accepted. Destruction of forests has had a considerable influence in increasing the sensitivity of the Himalaya.

Over the last three decades in the name of rapid development hills have been excavated and dug, tunnels drilled to install massive electricity projects have increased the sensitivity of these regions. Altering river course continues. Other than these unplanned motor roads are being laid out and the mud dug up from these is being dumped along rivers. Where earlier glaciers stretched, dense forests grew, quiet meadows have been haphazardly dug and net work of roads constructed. In such secluded forest areas large settlements have come up overnight. Population increased manifold.

In no time to supply water, land and energy to the burgeoning population in the name of medicinal plants, without any thinking intervention was done. Due to disparity in the development of rural areas migration of people to the cities and spread of population into unstable regions has become a common phenomenon. There has been rapid transgression in the vicinity of big and small rivers. There is a lack of political will to respond to all this. All these are circumstances which have increased pressure on the Himalaya and its rivers, with the level of violent disturbances increasing every year.

Earlier natural disturbances would occur at intervals of twenty to thirty years. These days they have started occurring every year or two. All these are pressures from which the Himalaya and the rivers originating from it have received unprecedented encouragement to turn violent and the local residents are suffering.If even now no concentrated effort is being made at the national level to reduce these pressures, terrible tragedies in the coming years cannot be ruled out.

  • For this it is necessary to specifically recognise those Himalayan regions which are sensitive.
  • Instruments and procedures have to be set up to monitor disturbances in the glacier and glacial lake regions.
  • Near the snowline and its adjacent meadows, along with monitoring, activities to encourage sensitivity should be encouraged. In these regions the fondness for big projects has to be renounced. Small compatible projects confirming to local conditions should be developed. In all development projects must bear in mind the carrying capacity of the land and terrain. In this the disposal of excavated soil, muck and debris must be included in the project planning itself.
  • In the development of roads and other infrastructure along with the disposal of soil, muck and debris, provisions have to be made to regulate the flow of water and for this composite provisions such as drains, scrubbers must be incorporated. To reduce the deleterious impact of snow and rain, the regeneration and density of natural forests have to be increased and efforts must be made to regenerate eroded and deforested lands and responsibility for this fixed.

Uttarakhand Rivers affected by the catastrophic floods of 16 -17 June:

Name of river: Name of district from where it originates:

  • Tons and Yamuna : Uttarkashi;
  • Bhagirathi: Uttarkashi;
  • Bhilangana: Tehri;
  • Saorogad: Uttarkashi;
  • Kshirganga: Uttarkashi;
  • Dhanarigad: Uttarkashi;
  • Mandakini: Rudraprayag;
  • Songanga: Rudraprayag;
  • Madhuganga: Rudraprayag;
  • Khiraongad: Chamoli;
  • Alaknanda: Chamoli;
  • Dudhganga – Manpaye: Chamoli;
  • Bhayundarganga: Chamoli;
  • Nandakini: Chamoli;
  • Pindar: Bageshwar;
  • Aglad: Tehri;
  • Paligad: Tehri;
  • Belganga: Tehri;
  • Saryu: Bageshwar;
  • Ramganga East: Pithoragarh;
  • Gori: Pithoragarh;
  • Elagad: Pithoragarh;
  • Dhauli East: Pithoragarh;
  • Kali: Pithoragarh.

February 2014

(Translated from Hindi original by SB and some editing by GV)

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