GUPTKASHI: Each time there’s a knock on the door of Shivani’s house, she thinks it’s her father. When it turns out it’s not, she goes back to cuddling her pet. “It’s not him,'' she tells the puppy.
Shivani is nine years old and goes to Saraswati Shishu Mandir in Sounu village, a trek of 3 km from her village of Kotna, 22 km interior of Guptkashi in the hills of Uttarakhand. Her father Anil made a living by carrying pilgrims to Kedarnath in a doli. He was on one such trip in 2013 when flash floods swept Kedarnath. He has been missing since then, presumed dead, another number among the 6,000 people who died in that deluge.
As Uttarakhand prepares for its Assembly election, the first since Kedarnath, on February 14, issues of rehabilitation, relief, reconstruction and the fate of the missing persons are back in focus. The electorate is full of questions. The contestants have no answers.
A few months after Anil went missing in Kedarnath, Shivani's mother married another man, leaving behind Shivani with her grandmother Madhuli Devi.
“The government should tell us what happened to my son. They promised a lot to us, a job, monetary benefits. None of the promises were fulfilled,” says Madhuli Devi, who is battling a serious ailment. Her husband Jailal, a vegetable vendor, has been running from pillar to post to get the compensation.
The devastation caused by the floods of 2013 – destroyed power stations, fallen bridges and broken roads – can still be seen in villages in Kedarnath, one of the 14 Assembly segments in Pauri Garhwal Lok Sabha constituency. Till last year, locals were stumbling upon skeletons surfacing at different places in Kedarnath. Residents say the Congress government of Harish Rawat has done little to repair the damaged infrastructure.
In Chandrapuri, on the banks of the Mandakini, a suspension bridge that was the sole access to five villages remains collapsed with no sign of reconstruction. The villagers use a trolley to cross the river. It is risky and often dangerously overloaded. Raghubeer Singh, a resident of Chandrapuri, says politicians should think twice before visiting village to seek their votes in this election.
There’s talk of a boycott in these villages of kedarnath, or maybe exercising the NOTA option. The village head of Gaundar, Bir Singh, says it won’t be the first time these voters have stayed away from the polls.
Some of these villagers did receive compensation for what they lost in 2013, but Kedarnath has not recovered. Although the Char Dham Yatra has been revived, pilgrim numbers are down and people who depended on the pilgrimage season continue to be badly off.
Meanwhile, politicians do what they always do. The incumbent MLA, Shaila Rani Rawat, 61, used to be in the Congress but has switched to the BJP. The local BJP heavyweight, Asha Nautiyal revolted against her party and is contesting as an Independent. The Congress nominee to take these two women is a journalist, Manoj Rawat.
The campaigning has been sluggish. Having switched to the BJP, Shaila Rawat claims she lobbied chief minister Rawat for reconstruction but he paid no attention to Kedarnath. 'My efforts were futile, so I decided to quit and go with the BJP,'' she says.
People view the lady with suspicion, accusing her of misusing disaster relief funds. Defections don’t go down well among the pahadi people. “She is a turncoat and this will go against her,” said a vegetable vendor, Ramlal Upadhyaya.
Nautiyal, 47, is a two-time MLA and popular among villagers. She expects to profit from the anti-incumbency factor. Shaila Rawat was one of nine Congress MLAs who defected to the BJP in April 2016. When she was given the BJP ticket, Nautiyal’s supporters were not happy. The tussle between the two women may end up benefitting the Congress, whose candidate, Manoj Rawat targets Shaila Rawat. ''She has to explain the misuse of relief funds and tell the people why she could not get reconstruction started.”
The BJP has won two out of the last three elections in Kedarnath but the contest has never been more intriguing as now.