Outside the back gate of the Jolly Grant Airport in Dehradun, I found myself baffled. There was uncertainty in the air without a ray of hope. It was the day after the Mi17 V5 helicopter of the Indian Air Force (IAF) met with a tragic crash over Gaurikund, killing all 20 personnel on board. The bodies, charred beyond identity, were still being tracked in the thick jungles by the paratroopers. Three of the dead, I was told, were lying beneath the chopper wreckage making their retrieval difficult. Even as TV channels reported 8 casualties’ minutes after the crash, an officer whispered the real figure in my ear, which left me numb till next morning.
At the NTRO Airbase, behind the Jolly Grant Airport, which was being used by the Indian Air Force (IAF) as the temporary operational base for Operation Rahat, a pale wave of gloom had descended. The officers and pilots of the IAF could be seen shattered by the development. It was a disaster within a disaster, which wasn’t ever anticipated by the forces. The IAF realised the absence of its chopper, hours after the incident as the operation was on a war-footing and at times working without the directions of an Air-Traffic Control (ATC).
Outside the NTRO Airbase, the Uttarakhand Government under pressure from media and the relatives of those missing had created an information centre which often acted indifferent to the wailing relatives. The centre was supposed to register the missing names and announce the names of those rescued by the forces. Often the officials would act like robots, without a sense of empathy for a crying father looking for his missing son or a shivering son looking for his aged mother helplessly. The back gate of the air base now resembled a notice board with hundreds of photographs of those missing, pasted against it.
A 65-year-old man, clad in a dhoti-kurta with thick glasses, holding a walking stick, turned to me as I reached the spot, asking with a sense of calmness, “My son went to Gaurikund in his car. Last we heard from him was on 16th June. And there is no news till date! Where can I find him?” Guilty of not having a satisfactory answer, I interviewed him and let it broadcast for the news station where I began working this summer. The image of that father has stayed on with me since that moment. There is only a limit to which a journalist can help a victim but the helplessness of a father shattered my heart to pieces. There was no way I could tell him that Kedarnath and Gaurikund had been cleared completely with all survivors evacuated, and what left was corpses, some on the streets, few on trees and several others under debris.
Even as I searched for an answer later that day, I noticed two cabinet ministers from Andhra Pradesh interacting with the IAF officials near the Air base. The ministers were of course concerned about people from their state who had been reportedly missing from the pilgrimage route in Kedarnath. There has been a continuous flow of politicians in Uttarakhand days into the disaster. With the two Prime ministerial contenders Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi throwing open the gates, there was no stopping for the politicians.
...but I was used to the cold stare by politicians by now. A couple of days before meeting Gandhi, I happened to interview Yashpal Arya, the Disaster Affairs Minister of Uttarakhand who also is the President of the local unit of Congress. Arya, during the course of the interview announced that at least 5000 people had been killed in the flash floods even though his Chief Minister still quoted a figure around 500. With egg on his face, the Minister seemed to have later realised the blunder and told his people to take care of the ‘journalist’ who took the interview. With hundreds of calls from Congress and the Government pouring in throughout the night, I decided to stay on with the story without compromising an inch. Fortunately, a local PTI journalist who happened to be around during my interview also confirmed the 5000 figure in his news report which only helped substantiate my story. Later, the journalist told me how he had also been receiving calls to drop the story!
Today, the death toll has become a raging debate, with the Speaker of Uttarakhand Assembly announcing that the figure could cross 10,000. Chief Minister however maintains that we’ll never be able to know the exact number of the dead. Former Home Secretary V.K. Duggal confirmed to me that the official figure of the dead would be a little more than 3000 and only be announced after data of the same is compiled till the sending week of July.
For a conflict reporter, or a journalist covering a disaster of such magnitude there are dangers at every point. Not alone of plunging into risky areas to hear from the real victims and make the world aware of the same, but also of making the arrogant politician angry!
Journey into the hills has always been associated with returning home; for me personally, it has always brought immense joy and excitement. In the plains of Delhi, reporting on politics, terrorism or even a scam, you never really head out of city walls into the real interiors of India. But, at times when opportunities come to head out, they are surrounded with tales of loss and pain. And we journalists are left to cover death and destruction, to give a voice to the unheard and ignored!
It was on 17th morning, few hours after the glacier behind the Kedarnath shrine almost 22,769 feet above the sea level decided to fall into the valley, that I got a call from my Bureau Chief to leave for Uttarakhand. A reporter had already left early morning, but the magnitude of the catastrophe was such that a single reporter would not be able to handle it alone.
Days into the disaster, half of the New Delhi’s editors and conflict reporters were climbing hilly terrains or boarding IAF choppers to cover the dance of death over the much famous Kedarnath and the adjoining Gaurikund. Initial reports had suggested that Kedarnath had turned into a ghost town with dead bodies lying all over the area and all buildings destroyed as pack of cards.
On board the Mi17 V5 chopper, my pilot Wing Commander S.M. Yunus announced to the NDRF and ITBP personnel that taking media was a priority as the world was waiting to hear what was happening on ground and the IAF was not compromising on rescue or relief operations by ferrying journalists into the disaster hit zone. Few days later, a newspaper editor labelled him a ‘Muslim’, saving ‘Hindus’ in Uttarakhand. Till that moment, I had never been conscious of my religion while covering a calamity. Who would bother to wear religion on the sleeves while rescuing people out of death? I wasn’t conscious of the fact that my video-journalist, a Muslim, was working tirelessly to get the best possible visuals for the world to see. And today after spending two weeks in Uttarakhand, I’m still not conscious of my religion or of any other person’s. I don’t wear blinkers on my eyes or conscience while saving people from death or perhaps reporting on it.
Spending sixty minutes in Kedarnath, four days after the flash floods, I got the first-hand experience of how the forces were rescuing people from the unreachable areas. Without road connectivity, and frequent bad weather, it had constantly been a race against time. As I flew over the holy Kedarnath, I could see the devastated shrine and the piled up dead bodies which are now being cremated in a phased manner.
It was there in Kedarnath that I heard Second Commandant of the NDRF Nityananda Gupta, who was martyred in the chopper crash over Gaurikund. Over wireless, he tried his best to convince his commander from NDMA Vinay Kajla to leave as he was competent enough to handle the final phase of evacuation. The convincing may not have worked, but what I heard on the wireless will stay on with me forever life-long.
Nityanand Gupta's voice echoed on the wireless, “Sir, I’ll be the last person to leave Kedarnath”. He did leave us all, saving hundreds of those stranded in Kedarnath for several days.