Diminutive-looking Harmanpreet, a 13-year-old Sikh pilgrim, had almost fainted when a waiter at an open-front restaurant quoted Rs 500 for a rice-bowl and Rs 180 for a wheat roti to his accompanying grandfather, while they were stranded on their way to Hemkund Sahib in rain-ravaged Uttarakhand.
They starved for a marathon 43 hours and resisted their hunger pangs until his grandfather spotted Harmanpreet scavenging on garbage picker’s collected food. On Friday, upon his return aboard Punjab government bus, the teenager and his family broke into tears, while narrating harrowing tales of trauma of spending five days with little or no food.
“We wanted to save our money to reach Risikesh. Locals refused to waste their own food on us. They started screaming at us, asking us to run away from their neighbourhood as water reached their terraces. After a 20-km run, I started nibbling at a piece of bread from a garbage bin,” said Harmanpreet, who returned in one of the 22 buses sent from Punjab.
Troubles for him, his two brothers – Gurvinder(19) and Jitender (14) – had further mounted when they decided to board a passenger taxi, first to Joshimath and then to Risikesh. A stunning Rs 15,000 for a 200-km journey for four people is what the driver asked their grandfather Balwant Singh. Theirs is not the only heart-wrenching experience. Those pilgrims who braved the cloudburst and rains that ravaged Uttarakhand are recounting agonising tales of devastation.
“There was fear and that was only of death and getting away from family. Just less than a metre above my head, boulders were slipping and on my left, the roads were crumbling. The rains and thought of losing life numbed our body and blinded our vision,” recalled Rajinder Singh, 37, a Morinda-based economics teacher. Rajinder, who was fortunate to ride a pillion on motorcycle till Rishikesh, has been filled with remorse on missing three members of his small pilgrimage team as he lost communication with them.
“Cellphone was the only way to remain in touch. I became helpless as I could offer no money but lose my phone for a ride till Rishikesh,” he said. Even as Uttarakhand authorities have claimed that over 50,000 food packets were dropped by choppers on Thursday, many survivors revealed that there was little effort to first rescue them.
“Would a person look to save his life from the debris of collapsed buildings or pick up the food packets. They could have at least sent some canters,” said Sukhpreet, a 38-year-old mother of two daughters.