Sunday, September 19, 2010

Leh needs a hand up, not a hand out

Shreya Roy Chowdhury, TNN, Sep 19, 2010, 04.52am IST

They don't really need yet another bucket, blanket or stove. Ladakhis displaced by the recent floods have enough of these. When flash floods devastated villages and killed nearly 130 people on August 6, the army reached almost immediately and NGOs followed. Basic relief taken care of, there are still no solution for the more pressing problems and six weeks later, the hapless Ladakhi stills grapples with them.
Most people have lost the land they farmed. A harsh winter is round the corner and the displaced Ladakhi may have to spend it in a camp. They may be faced with an impending water crisis. The floods swept away many of Ladakh's famous "artificial glaciers", an ingenious system of stone embankments and iron pipes for capturing and channeling precious snowmelt to help farmers in Ladakh's cold desert irrigate crops — the brainchild of retired civil engineer Chhewang Norphel.
But few NGOs are willing to go beyond the plan-and-proposal stage. The reconstruction of homes is yet to begin. Asgar Ali, who runs the NGO Alamdar Health Service, recently visited the local tehsil office to enquire about the Rs 2 lakh promised by the government for reconstruction. He was told it would take another week. This is ironic, considering the women of Taru village recently queued up to receive the sixth installment of relief material.
In fact, there is a deluge of material, far in excess of what is required. "We got so much medicine from Red Cross and other foreign NGOs that they'll expire before they can all be used. It's the same with mineral water, utensils, blankets — there's so much of them that now they're being distributed in unaffected areas. About 50 trucks of fodder for livestock reached Basgo from Punjab; some of it had to be sent back," said Ali.
But there's no quick-fix solution for the agricultural land destroyed by the floodwaters. It will take at least two years to reclaim, and this, only if it's done at breakneck speed, said Sonam Jorgyes, who is directing rehabilitation and reconstruction projects in Ladakh on behalf of Mumbai's Tata Institute of Social Sciences ( TISS). The problem is compounded by the loss of top soil. Crops can be planted after the debris is cleared only if any top soil remains. Else, it will take much longer to nurture the cold desert soil into its previous state of fertility.
Jorgyes says the loss to farmers is enormous. "A season's crop fetches the farmer Rs 30-35,000. They can sell potatoes, vegetables and fresh apricots to the Indian army. Farmers are not willing to leave their land and move to Leh. In Ladakh, if you own land, you're known in society." But more than 14,000 hectares of farmland lies buried under flood debris, says Padma Tashi of local NGO Rural Development and You (RDY). Clearing this, says Jorgyes, will require machinery, trucks and somewhere to dump the debris. "It'll be difficult in places like Taru and Achena Thang but in many villages agricultural land is reclaimable. It's challenging work and will cost about Rs 15-20,000 per canal," he adds.
If agricultural land is intact, there is still a problem because at least 90% of the irrigation channels in 34 villages have been destroyed. Several villages, including Taru, Umla, Stakmo and Phayang have lost their entire irrigation system. "We had constructed a winter water reservoir at Umla. It cost us about Rs 30 lakh and was completed on August 3. It was only used for a day before being washed away," remembers Tashi. So too a mini-dam at Taru, constructed by RDY.
Norphel says six of 11 artificial glaciers he remember working on are "fully damaged and five partially". Thirty of the 50 water reservoirs he created are "reported to have been completely damaged leaving no trace at all." "If resources are available, restoration/reconstruction will take one or two working summers. But working season is limited; it normally begins in May and lasts till October," says Norphel.
But the most urgent concern is shelter for winter. If funds are further delayed, locals will have to get started on their own. "Construction will have to start whether government money arrives in time or not," says Asgar Ali of Alamdar Health Service. "We're thinking of raising funds within the community by taking donation in the form of money or material." He adds, "Construction has to be completed by November 15. Uske baad cement ka kaam nahin ho sakta."
It is a cry for help from a land the world travelled in happier times for its remote and beautiful mountainscapes.

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