Gandhari: An allegory of both fire and snow

Ashish Chouhan
After a long hustle and bustle of the day, the people of Chugg village of Gandhari valley were dozing off as usual on the night of the 27th of October. Embers of pine trees were sulking in the metal boxes (locally called bhukhari) installed in the middle of rooms. Connected with long pipes these were emitting smoke out of the houses. Animals were also calling it a day. After a long season of harvest, houses made of wood and mud were stashed with hay. For winters were near and snow ready to limit the footfall of animals. A few miles away Sansari Nala was flowing with its full vigour. Naked mountains which surrounded the valley were also silent as if they were sleeping.
But this silence seemed transient and frightening that day. After a few hours, at around 1 AM when everyone was sleeping, screams were heard from a distance in a nearby village. Adrenaline rushed through the veins of people as they woke up. One house was on fire. Only the mountains and the air which surrounded the valley witnessed how it all started. Confused, these villagers started looking for a water source nearby to extinguish the fire. But how can a few taps with less water extinguish the rising flames of fire? One small brook about a mile away from a village was helplessly watching, for there was no source of how its waters could reach the village in large amounts to extinguish the fire.
Gradually, this fire spread to other houses, and 10 to 12 houses were gutted in no time. Authorities were informed by the Sarpanch of Tun Paanchayat on time, thanks to the telecommunication towers installed recently but the hope was zero as there was no motorable road to the village which could be used by the fire brigade teams. Houses turned into ashes in a few hours.
This was the brief story of how the small village of Gandhari faced the wrath of fire a few weeks ago. Gandhari is a beautiful valley in the Paddar subdivision of Kishtwar District. There are 6 villages in this valley viz. Bhatwas, Chugg, Muthal, Khajraundi, Aliha and Tun. A few years ago, in 2017, Tun and Khajraundi villages also suffered the same fate when the flames of a fire there devastated many houses. But the story doesn’t end here. These are just some brief accounts of how the fire played with the lives of people and animals in this valley. There are also plenty of stories to narrate the devastation that snow has caused there. Here is one!
On a winter night of March 5, 1979 AD when everyone was sleeping in their homes, an avalanche hit the village of Bhatwas, killing 39 people and hundreds of animals on the spot. The next day when people from the villages in the vicinity were looking for the bodies in the debris another avalanche hit the hamlet. This time in Aliha village which destroyed many houses and one Buddhist monastery, thereby killing 8 people (4 lamas) on the spot. This entire episode took at least a month of March to diffuse, sending shock ripples across the valley. By the time authorities reached the place, there was nothing to do. Bodies were buried under the river of snow and only summers had the answer of where they were. Hundreds of families were affected that day. This tragedy when happened, people in the entire Paddar were oblivious to the roads and vehicles.
Even today, when naked mountains and deep trenches of Gandhari valley bring the avalanches down, they create waves of winds that throw away the roofs of houses and schools in the villages. But many things have changed since then. Today this valley is dotted with two big communication towers and the construction of a road is taking place at a breakneck speed. Today it takes only a few hours for the news to spread. Government-run organizations, associations, and other NGOs today can come up easily in a day or two with immediate relief material. Yet we fail in tackling the
Gandhari-like fire incidents on time. Why? Do we not have the proper infrastructure in place? Are our houses not made up of cement and mortar? A big YES! But would it suffice if we fix it all? Will it cure the problem indefinitely? A Big NO! Here is a reason!
So far, our approach has lied only in limiting the difficulties of victims when it comes to dealing with such incidents in the remote corners of our districts. We are only tackling the consequences of incidents on such a scale by providing food and other relief materials to the victims. Today we have teams working at both National and State levels that are giving their best in controlling or say minimizing the effects of such disasters. We have also developed effective mitigation strategies no doubt. But when it comes to pre-disaster reduction strategies, we are still far from better.
Such incidents are a common occurrence in the faraway villages of our country. To be very specific, our Kishtwar district is replete with such stories of incidents of fire and snow. Every now and then we hear of such incidents taking place in the far-off villages of Paddar, Marwah, Warwan, and Dacchan and these are happening since time immemorial. These stories above from Gandhari are glaring examples of our helplessness and powerlessness. Moreover, they also reflect that we have failed to prevent such events from happening. Why?
Our topography has hindered the process to a very large extent. Our technology maybe also is not that advanced that we can douse the fire in villages on time. Maybe our supercomputers fail to predict the avalanche on time that wash away entire villages. We hear about such natural and man-made disasters very frequently yet we fail to prevent them from happening. What does it imply then?
Today our country is developing like never before. Start-up culture is mushrooming and the private sector is even making dents in the space sector. The field in the development of technologically advanced drones is also making unprecedented progress. The future of drones seems promising in dealing with problems in a myriad of sectors. These drones can be of great help in mitigating manmade and natural disasters like these. These would be an easy option to douse mass fires in the remote pockets of our country on time when roads are not an effective option. Advanced techniques and proper scientific research may also help in identifying avalanche-prone areas.
Apart from these, training should also be imparted to the villagers to minimize the effects of such incidents. Had proper water tanks and rigid preparedness been there in the Chugg village of Gandhari valley, this major tragedy of the scale could have been averted.
Gandhari valley is just an allegory of fire and snow in the fabric of space and time. A mere dot where this dance of fire and snow has been played. This responsibility is entirely upon us now whether we let the fire douse within us with the avalanche of complacency or petrol it further with the innovative ideas of dealing with such mishappenings. Let the snow of ideas fall from the sky and let the avalanche of this snow now put the Gandhari valley to be the last in the tally of suffering.