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Bijlee on its way, ahead of elections
- Kumaon village hit by landslides waits for repairs

(Top) Boulders litter Dwali after last year’s tragedy; one of the damaged sections of the Sundardhunga trail. Pictures by Shyam G Menon

Khati’s prominence in Kumaon comes from its location on the trail to the Pindari glacier.

It is the last village before the snow-capped peaks of Zero Point, two days’ walk away.

Khati does not have electricity. Nearby villages do. One of the most meaningful contributions was by a foreign couple, who, electing to stay in Khati and noticing the absence of electricity, supplied houses with solar-powered lights.

One wonders if approaching elections have anything to do with it — after so many years spent with no access to the grid, electric transformers and cables have now made their appearance in Khati.

This March, seeing an electric post replete with cables, I asked a young girl playing on the steps of the local temple what it was for.

Bijleeee...!” she shouted back.

Cute is a word used by adults for adults, in the city. In the Himalaya, cute fits children beautifully. Bijlee — let me call her that — was cute.

Knowing how long Khati has waited for electricity, I asked: Will it come walking up the hills, slowly?”

Naheee! Taar se aayega!” she said.

Two boys nearby, serious as only boys can be about important matters, added that power was expected shortly.

Just as one wait appeared to be ending, another wait — a much younger one — was biting.

Khati is junction for two well-known trekking trails. One goes to the Pindari glacier; the other leads to Sundardhunga.

In June 2013, when Kedarnath succumbed to tragedy caused by rain and flood, a similar story — albeit without comparable casualty levels —unfolded on these two trails. The stream coming from the Kafni glacier is a tributary of the Pindar river, joining it at Dwali.

Mid-June, this stream was dammed by severe landslide triggered by relentless rain. On the night of June 15, the wall burst sending water crashing towards Dwali, where a couple of guesthouses and teashops stood.

None died. But Dwali was changed forever. From being the convergence of two ravines, it became a flood plain, a football field littered with boulders. Save one, every bridge from here to Badiyakote several kilometres downstream was washed off.

This story and its adjunct of stranded tourists have been documented. I, therefore, merely convey what, Bishen Singh (he is around 65), who used to run a popular teashop (now in shambles) at Malya Dhar, said: “Everything was shaking that night.”

Singh and his wife used to stay alone at Malya Dhar; the lone inhabitants of a point on the trail remembered for its robust bridge over a furious rapid. Both the bridge and the giant boulders shaping the rapid were swept away.

The old couple spent a few days living in the forest with their cows and buffaloes before they reached Khati safely.

“I won’t go back,” Singh said.

You always reached Malya Dhar hoping to have tea at his shop. Malya Dhar won’t be the same if Singh’s teashop doesn’t reopen.

All this happened in June 2013. Another two months and it will be a year.

After the calamity (the sole casualty in the region was a shepherd who was reported missing), a handful of trekkers apparently arrived in winter 2013. How far they went on the Pindar and Sundardhunga trails was unclear in local conversation.

This March, when three of us went to check the section up to Dwali ahead of hiking courses from an outdoor school, we found that the whole texture of the easy hike had changed. The route went up and down, into the riverbed and up above landslides.

Where previously the trek used to keep the river far below, now the bulk of the walking was on the riverbed bloated into a flood plain. There was no clear trail. You had to consciously search for continuity, linking bits of old trail and new.

It was no different on the Sundardhunga side, where, too, we went all the way to Kathalia. On this trail, the portion between Dholabagod and Morikhari (the final ascent to Kathalia starts at Morikhari), had been rogered. The damage on both the trails — Pindari and Sundardhunga — mainly affects the supported treks wherein camping staff and mules are hired.

The hike to Pindari glacier is one of the oldest in the Himalaya with formal path laid and rest houses built decades ago. It is a historic trail.

Khati was alive with talk of senior officials expected to visit and repair work commencing. I asked villagers if anyone in authority had as yet hiked at least till Dwali to assess the damage first hand. They could not recall anyone doing so. Same was the case on the Sundardhunga side.

Tourism is part of the local economy. With electricity arriving, people may not even notice trails gone dead. Television and such mesmerise. Something tells me a good tourist season also helps pay electricity bills.

(The author is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)