Uttarakhand is a mountainous territory on India’s Himalayan border with Nepal and Tibet. Often referred to as the “Land of the Gods”, millions of pilgrims visit the state every year to see the many holy Hindu temples found there. Its dramatic terrain makes it a prime destination for adventure tourism, and the region is also renowned as the birthplace of outspoken environmental campaigner Vandana Shiva. This week, however, Uttarakhand is in the limelight for the wrong reasons, with the heaviest rainfall in sixty years causing a ‘national disaster’ (Guardian).
Despite its impressive geographic and cultural features, the region is not without its troubles. ChildFund operates in the community of Jeolikote – a collection of approximately 50 villages where most families live in stone or concrete houses with tin roofs. There are few roads, little electricity, and the only source of water for many residents are streams. There are limited employment opportunities and most residents are dependent on farming. Wheat and rice are the staples of the diet, but agriculture is highly dependent on successful monsoon rains and in recent years, droughts have exacerbated problems brought on by the failure of the green revolution and trade liberalisation policies which have made India ‘the capital of hunger’ (Shiva). Consequently, Uttarakhand is one of a group of nine states which collectively contain just under half of the Indian population, but are the source of three quarters of child deaths under the age of five and two thirds of maternal mortality.
Consequently, ChildFund’s interventions focus on maternal & child health and nutrition programmes. Parents, teachers, and midwives participate in preventative health trainings, building local capacity to improve maternal and child health. Traditional birth attendants provide routine and emergency obstetrical care in remote villages saving the lives of mothers and infants. Trained community health volunteers make home visits to reinforce child protective behaviours – exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life, hand washing with soap, and the use of oral rehydration solutions to treat dehydration. Mothers are taught to recognize symptoms of pneumonia and other serious illnesses that require immediate medical care, whilst cooking demonstrations using locally available foods encourage women to cultivate kitchen gardens and share recipes.
This week, however, the destructive power of nature has once again impacted on development progress. Hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims typically visit the area at this time of year to avoid the monsoon rains in July. However, this year the rains have come earlier and far heavier than usual. The resulting floods have caused landslides, wiping out roads, bridges and villages, leaving over 1000 people dead. The army has rescued tens of thousands in an ‘amazing effort’ but tens more remain stranded. Interestingly, ‘over-development’ has been cited as a contributing factor, with deforestation and construction reducing natural defences against floods. Critics claim, “Too many roads, hotels and buildings have caused the valley to collapse like a stack of dominoes” (Guardian), revealing the complex, competing and often contradictory demands on development work.
ChildFund is happy and relieved to report that its partner staff and all 555 enrolled children in the programme are safe and sound. We will continue to work to improve the lives of children in Uttarakhand and over the coming days, as the full extent of this natural disaster becomes clear, our thoughts will be with them particularly. If you would like to contribute to our emergency response in Uttarakhand, you can make a donation to our emergency fund online. Thank you.