For the last one month, our team has been camping at the Tapovan power plant disaster site in Uttarakhand. The team met hundreds of victims and the families of those missing/dead in the last couple of weeks. Asha Negi (name changed for privacy) is one of them. When we met her three weeks ago, she was numb, sitting expressionless at the corner of the temporary relief camp in Tapovan. It seemed her body had no energy left, even to cry. She was in a state of complete shock and despair. Our team member sat beside her for more than an hour, struggling to find the right words, before she finally spoke. When we asked Asha how she was, she turned her eyes towards us, and seemed to be noticing us for the first time in the last few hours.
She started telling her how she refused to leave Uttarakhand to work in an urban construction site. She had decided to start a local handicrafts shop after taking a loan, while her husband was working in a factory in Dehradun.
“Jyada kuch nahi tha humare paas, parr jitna tha usme hum khush the. Kam se kum, hum humare logon ke beech the, humare apne gaaon me (We did not have much, but we were content with what he had. We were among our people and in our village).” she mentioned.
However, the deadly pandemic was like an eclipse on their happiness. Her husband was left without any job as the lockdown was imposed, and the shop was forced to remain closed. The stress to feed their family of five, and the debt on their handicrafts shop seemed to grow every day in the shadow of the pandemic.
The year 2021 had brought some hope for Asha and her family. Their shop saw customers returning with the tourists visiting the Himalayas for the new year, and her husband found a construction job at the dam site just 90 km away from their home, in the neighbouring district.
Her voice grew heavier as she recalls February 7. She was having lunch when she heard her neighbour screaming loudly. “Sab kuch khatam ho gaya, jaldi chalo sare majdoor surang (tunnel) me fase hain, bachna mushkil hai unka” (We are finished. Come quickly, all the labourers are stuck in the tunnel. They will not be able to escape.)
As she came out of her home, Asha realised that this was the same tunnel her husband was working in, the Tapovan Hydro-power plant project, which now has been swept away by the flash floods. . She rushed to Tapovan with her neighbours, and after six days, her husband’s dead body was recovered from the tunnel. At this juncture, she broke down. Two days after this, she gained consciousness. With guilt and helplessness, she immediately checked on her children’s well-being. She found solace in the fact that her children had food for two days. She finally ate something, after the constant insistence of her neighbours, who reminded her that she had to look after her children alone. For her, the food was a mixture of grains, warmth, and hope. The community kitchen, which brought this food, was run by local women, coordinated by a non-profit organisation, called Sewa International, and had started within 10 hours of the disaster. While she was still figuring out how to put together the incomplete pieces of her life, she found people whom she could talk to and express her grief. These were specially trained volunteers (on trauma counselling) working at the relief camp set up by Sewa. Asha returned to the village two weeks ago, but the counselling volunteers are regularly in touch over phone calls.
It is not just the community kitchen and trauma counselling, but Sewa was also the first to issue the public warning. This was done using a social media live video on the incoming disaster, that warned, not only the locals, but also the authorities and media about the flash floods. Within a few hours, the Sewa International mobile health van had also arrived at the powerplant site, to support the rescue operations. It was equipped with facilities for first-aid, ECG, X-Ray, pathology lab, and oxygen masks. This health van was manned with trained medical professionals providing instant support to the victims of the disaster, providing medicines, and carrying people to nearby health centers as needed.
Sewa International has been working in the area for the past six years, and with prior experience in routes, and community connections, Sewa also guided and helped the rescue teams of NDRF and SDRF (National and State Disaster Response Force). From the third day of the disaster onwards, Sewa International moved to the inward pockets of the Himalayas, using the hand-operated trolleys to cross the mighty Dhauliganga river to reach the impacted communities.
For the past one month, the team has been working restlessly and doing their best to help the victims. The SHGs, which had been set-up by Sewa for the last five years, are now acting as the extended arms of the relief teams in their parent villages, packaging ration kits, running community kitchens, and assisting the trauma counselling, providing a great help to fellow villagers. Many members from the rescue teams of NDRF and the army continue to have their food and shelter in the sewa camp-site in Tapovan and Raini village. While the rescue operations for the missing people are now finishing, women team members are constantly spending time with the affected communities trying to provide solace and counseling to reduce their grief and bring back normalcy in their lives. With more than 40 affected villages, more than 60 team members are currently engaged in these services. It’s almost a month now, but the grief of losing a family member, or losing their livelihood continues to cast a long shadow on their lives.
The connectivity to some affected villages has been completely lost, and the team is on their toes providing food packets, and other basic needs to these villages. The field team is constantly traveling through villages, working with the local administration to identify missing people and estimating the loss of infrastructure in the villages. With hands and legs working in the present relief operations, the minds of the team have started thinking on long-term rehabilitation programmes in the area. We are preparing a list of possible livelihood support programmes in the affected areas for skill development, livelihood support, and rehabilitating the lost trees on the riverside.
This pretty much shows the state of the families who have missing loved ones over the last 3 days, since the Glacial Flood tragedy struck. Many of the missing still haven’t yet made it to the official count with details trickling in daily. The aggrieved families still in a state of shock and disbelief on their misfortune, looking for non-existent answers. Everyday members of these families sit next to the tunnel being cleaned or near the river bank, hoping to see a mud extractor JCB returning with their loved one alive and well, but without luck. With each passing day, pain and hopelessness is growing with a prospect of uncertain future for a childless parent, orphan kid, and others missing their relatives.
We at Sewa International Bharat being the First Responders by the cruel fate to witness the tragedy in its entirety, saw its impact first-hand. We had much planned on Sunday(7th Feb 2021), with our Medical Camp and trainings for our upcoming e-Clinic for tele-consultation and tele-medicine, along with our agri-resource centres being readied, but it was not to be.
Few of our employees and beneficiaries too are missing their near and dear ones, mostly our SHG women and young sons, who had gone to pick fodder, graze cattle near the river, or for work at the ill-fated power plants on Rishi Ganga and Tapovan. Devi(name changed) is missing her only brother, Kamla (name changed) missing her young son, few of our SHGs women leaders missing in Ringi and Raini villages. These are members who have worked hard with us in good and bad times, but are in grip of this cruel destiny.
Fearing an encore of the Sunday mishap, a lot of families have gone into the forests. Our team is going to the villages and speaking to those who are in condition to speak or their neighbors for others. We are collecting their missing relative info, needs and possible support requirements for the future. We have provided medical help/check-up thru Sewa Aarogyam, supplied basic relief supplies(food, water) to the villagers, laborers cleaning tunnels, and those families camped in forests.
But the most important thing needed right now is empathy. To understand, listen, hug and perhaps cry to share the pain, as that is the best all we can do to lessen the pain. While waiting for the rescuers to bring back some good(or bad) news, what the beleaguered families desperately want is a closure to take their life forward. The longer it takes to trace the missing, longer would be the misery too.
Our team is readying for the long-haul to see the crisis through with our brethren and everyone's support is crucial. When faced with distress of this magnitude sometimes the words are so not right, so wrong …..
CEO Sewa International
Across India, to fight the grim situation and help the most deprived and impoverished people survive the Covid-19 lockdowns, Sewa International has so far engaged with volunteers, corporates and NGO partners in providing family kits, fresh food, milk/biscuits, cloth masks, & medical equipments/supplies to hospitals. Post-Lockdown 4.0 ending May 31, 2020, Sewa is looking at working on the longterm programs dealing with the shortage of skilled laborers in cities due to distress reverse migration, as well as generating local village-level employment opportunities so that rural folks aren’t forced to relocate to cities. With our goals inline with the clarion call of “Atmanirbhar Bharat” of PM Modi, Sewa will strive to work with govt and like-minded organizations to take firm steps in this direction.
All this wouldn’t have been possible without the encouragement and contributions from supporters like you. Thanks a lot for making us your partners in this hour of need. We are fully committed to ensuring that your hard-earned money is used for the mitigation of the Covid-19 crisis in the most effective way.
Sharing a video appeal by famous playback singer Shantanu Mukherjee, popularly known as Shaan. He has appealed support for Sewa International globally.
Shaan has sung songs in Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Telugu, Kannada & Urdu films. He is also a television host. He has hosted the TV shows like Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Li’ll champs, Star voice of India, etc. He has also sung in Nepali films.
He is most versatile singer who is considered amongst most popular voices for melodious & romantic songs. He has been showered with titles like Golden voice of India, Voice of Paradise, Voice of Youth, Magician Melody, etc.
Kindly circulate this in all countries.
West Bengal State is the second-largest producer of tea in India contributing one-fourth of India’s tea productions. Alipurduar is the most backward District in entire West Bengal as the population who lives here is mostly below the poverty line and they don’t have many options available as their vocation. Geographically, it lies in the north of the Bengal region and shares the international border with Bhutan. It is surrounded by forest & Teagarden estates that become the major source of income for the local population. These tea gardens used to produce good quality tea until a few years back but with growing competition, most of them are closed now. The condition of tea garden workers has become really deplorable and they are now forced to take up odd jobs like work in the agriculture field, construction work or labour work. Again, the lack of basic sanitation facility, water supply and primary healthcare centre makes the situation more vulnerable. However, few are still engaged in tea garden work but they only get paid Rs 140 per day which is still below the minimum wages of agriculture labour, i.e; Rs 206. Still, they used to earn meagre from these odd jobs to feed their family but with the current lock-down situation, they are unable to go out and feed their family at this time.
Sewa International efforts in Alipurduar District are commendable as the volunteers here have reached out to more than 10,000 beneficiaries and benefits were passed on to tea-garden & daily wage workers, migrant labourers and marginalized families. So far, we have distributed more than 1000 Stay@Home kits (that contains dry ration, hygiene kit and other essentials) to tea-garden labours in various gram panchayat Shishujumra and Panchayat of Mathura, Banchugamari, Bholardabri(Vivekanda 1), Damanpur (Vivekanda 2 GP) region to help sustain the current situation. Amid COVID-19, our volunteer soon realized the importance of masks and started producing home-made reusable masks. More than 7800 such masks have been distributed and we have to plan to produce at least 1 lakh masks to cover these village.
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