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Photo of the Month - exploring the Story behind the Image...

Mules and Muleteers prepare to trek to Kedarnath

Mules and Muleteers prepare to trek to Kedarnath

Year: 2013, Month: June

India > Uttarakhand > Gaurikund

Take a good look at this photograph. Take a really good look. There's a lot of mules in that stock-yard, aren't there. There's quite a lot of men, too. Well guess what? Those mules, and thousands more like them, are now all dead, or starving to death. Oh, and what about the men in that photo? Are they OK? Actually, no, they are not. Most of the men that you see in that photo now have no work. The lucky ones have a least managed to get back home to their families, even if their families won't have much to eat this year - the money they had been counting on to feed them through the coming winter has gone. The un-lucky ones: well, like the mules, they are now dead too.

So what happened? What is this all about? Why were these people and mules here? Why such suffering, and why don't I know anything about it?

Let me explain...

All About The Char Dham Yatra
These people and these mules are here to service the Char Dham Yatra, a very important Hindu pilgimage that occurs each year in the state of Uttarakhand, India. Char Dham (literally: 'the four abodes/seats') refers to four temples that are widely revered by most Hindus: Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath. They are located high in the Garhwal Himalayas, and due to their remoteness, access is only possible for a limited period each year, usually May to October, when the mountain passes have cleared of snow and ice and the roads can be re-opened. A circular pilgrimage journey or 'Yatra' to visit these four temples in the proper order was established many years ago, and today draws many thousands of Hindu pilgrims from all over India and beyond. Many people are involved in the service industry for all these pilgrims: hotels, restaurants, transport, etc. etc. Some are locals who have built up profitable businesses from the yearly arrival of pilgrims, whilst others come to the area from further afield in India or even Nepal, specifically for the Yatra season. They get jobs as hotel and restaurant workers, muleteers, dhooly-carriers, basket carriers, etc. They can earn enough doing this to sustain themselves and their families for the following year.

What Are The Mules Doing Here?
Mules are man's best friend when help is needed to cover the 14km trek from the Gaurikund trail-head to the temple town of Kedarnath. There's no road, so apart from helicopter, there is no other way to get to Kedarnath. Many pilgrims on the Char Dham Yatra are unable or unwilling to manage the steep climb into the hills by themselves. One of the alternatives to walking is to hire a mule and muleteer to help you make the journey. Mule riding is very popular, and so many mules are brought to the trail-head each year to cater for the thousands of pilgrims that want to travel to Kedaranth. Although the Uttarakhand High Court had put a cap of 4500 mules to be deployed for the Kedarnath Yatra in 2013, it is believed that about 8000 mules were actually in service, carrying pilgrims to the temple and supplies to the hotels and restaurants that support it.

The Disastrous Floods Of June 2013
The above photo was taken in the first week of June, whilst I was taking part in the Char Dham Yatra myself. I finished, and got back to Rishikesh just in time. A couple of days later, on the 14th of June 2013, a multi-day cloudburst began. Centered on the North Indian state of Uttarakhand, it caused devastating floods and landslides in the country's worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami. Though some parts of Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh in India, some regions of Western Nepal, and some parts of Western Tibet also experienced heavy rainfall, over 95% of the casualties occurred in Uttarakhand. Destruction of bridges and roads left about 100,000 pilgrims and tourists trapped in the valleys leading to three of the four Char Dham Yatra pilgrimage sites. Worst hit was Kedarnath. The Indian Air Force, the Indian Army, and paramilitary troops evacuated more than 110,000 people from the flood ravaged area. Some 5,700 people are presumed dead, but the final number will be much higher than that. Some of these people were local residents, some were pilgrims taking part in the Char Dham Yatra, whilst others were the migrant workers who come each year from distant parts of India and Nepal for the Yatra season.

How Mules Were Affected?
Horses and mules had a terrible time. Hundreds of them died during the flooding, and those that were injured faced more torturous days without assistance. Many of the mules were separated from their owners and had no other choice but to fend for themselves. With dwindling fodder available, many starved to death. Others fell over cliffs whilst trying to reach isolated patches of grass. You would have thought that the mule's owners would have made an effort to recover their valuable property, but this wan't always possible. Some of the owners had died, others couldn't be traced and many others were either wounded themselves or too ill-equipped to reach the animals that had previously put bread on their table.

Did The Government Help The Mules?
When the flood disater hit the Kedarnath region, much effort was made to rescue the thousands of stranded pilgrims and villagers. Government helicopters were sent in. Private helicopters were chartered. Soldiers trekked into the area to lead people out along remote mountain paths. Whilst this was going on, the fate of the thousands of trapped mules were conveniently ignored. According to the People For Animals team (PFA), although some mules with minor injuries were taken away by their owners, those with broken limbs were just left behind to suffer and die. The lucky ones were put to sleep by the few vets brought into the area after the tradgedy. The government machinery moved far too little, far too late. It took four days after the tradgedy before the Chief Veterinary Officers even sent in requisitions for medical supplies to the Animal Husbandry Department, according to some sources. Finally, on the 26th of June, a report emerged via the Times of India that the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) were gearing up to help in the evacuation. The article reports: While veterinary doctors, basically those tending to NDRF's dog squads, will tend to injured and sick animals, jawans will attempt to create trails for animals to be evacuated from inaccessible areas. NDRF IG Sandeep Rai Rathore confirmed the news saying, "We are sending a small team for providing help to stranded animals." The team is also strategizing on how to provide food to the animals stuck in barren areas. "This is a new concept in India although the US does this regularly. We recently participated in a programme called Emergency Response on Animals organized by World Society for Protection of Animals. We are sensitizing and training our men in animal rescue," a senior NDRF official said. An NDRF team camping Kedarnath has also removed bodies of animals and human beings from in and around the temple. "The jawans have also cleaned the temple of all the silt and muck," the official said.

Did Anyone Else Help The Mules?
The PFA and the Humane Society International sent a nine member team into the area, comprising one equine specialist vet, two para-vets, one disaster management specialist, and one alpine specialist. They flew by helicopter from Rudraprayag to Gaurikund. Even this team, though, had its work cut out to make much of a real difference. The disaster area is huge, and the infrastructure had crumbled. At least 2000 mules were missing completely, according to local sources. Maulekhi, who works with the Uttarakhand unit of People For Animals, said that the mules left alone by their masters were injured and emaciated. "It is these animals that ferry thousands of pilgrims. We just can't forget them now when it is inconvenient to think about them. If the floods come again these animals will just drown. The Army and animal husbandry department have promised aid, but there isn't much forthcoming. I have been here for eight days now and am begging everyone to help save these animals, but it looks like I am fighting a losing battle."

Monica Puri of the PFA commented: "The latest details from Uttarakhand collected by our volunteers say that over 1,000 horses and mules are there near Hemkund starving, while there are another 350 in Jingurpani, 250 in Rambada and 50 near Kedarnath that need immediate attention. Another 15 horses are stranded across Mandakini river near Gaurikund and there is no way to reach them. We have urged the government to immediately get fodder dropped for them so that they can survive".

The Brooke Hospital for Animals - India, an affiliate of the Brooke Hospital for Animals - UK, was another of the few groups on the ground trying to help the abandoned mules. Using helicopters, they dropped 204 5Kg packets of high quality concentrate feed for mules at Joshimath, and a further 80 packets to mules at Govindghat - the first feed that reached these poor animals. Brooke India transported a further 800 more packets to the region and distributed them once flights were arranged.

Alaknanda Ghaati Shilpi Federation chairperson J.P. Maithani said: "Starving animals continue to fall off the slopes in search for grassy patches. The situation on the Hemkund trek is getting more and more critical by the day. Our volunteers visited Pulana village and found that more than 350 animals are stranded there but no air dropping of fodder is being done. A little further up in Ghangaria also animals continue to die of starvation. Despite tons of animal fodder lying at airports, helipads and godowns, it is not reaching these hapless animals."

With The Pilgrims Gone, Are Mules Still Needed?
Even without the pilgrims, mules are still crucial for the state of Uttarakhand. Where the roads end or have been destroyed, all construction materials and articles needed for daily life in the area is transported on horses and mules. Reconstruction of the devastated areas depends on them. The PFA is trying to convince the government that what they are doing is worthwhile and that these animals need to be saved. Not just for the animals, but for the people whose livelihood is dependent on them, and for the region as a whole. Some mule owners and residents of Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district began a fast-unto-death to press the authorities to rescue over 1,200 mules and horses stranded on the riverside in Govindghat. The protesters, including mule owners, and members of Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), fasted in front of Joshimath Sub-Divisional Magistrate Anup Kumar Nautiyal’s office. They were concerned that around 35 to 40 mules were dying everyday due to lack of fodder. The authorities did send some fodder for the mules, but it served only around 400 of the mules. Eventually, with the help of the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation, the National Thermal Power Corporation and the Jaiprakash Power Ventures Ltd. — the hydropower companies operating in the area — financial and technical assistance for the rescue was provided, and work started when the Badrinath highway was unblocked and construction materials could be brought in. Despite continuing heavy rains, around 730 mules were finally brought over the Alaknanda river at Govindghat on a makeshift bridge set up by the Border Roads Organisation.

Mules Used In The Uttarakhand Disaster
With major roads still blocked by debris falling from the hills due to intermittent rain, nearly 8,000 quintals of food material were taken to affected areas in the worst-hit Rudraprayag, Chamoli, Uttarkashi and Pithoragarh districts by choppers and mules. The local people are also hoping that the authorities will repair the mule tracks so that rations could also be transported to other cut-off villages such as Bhatwadi and Dunda.

Aftermath For Muleteers And Mules
The Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna has announced enhanced compensation for loss of mules and animals. Mule operators will now get Rs. 25000 instead of the Rs. 10000 announced for them earlier as compensation for the loss of their animals. As the Hindu newspaper's Of mules and money article explains, mule-owners are now in a lot of debt. "I lost two of my mules at Kedarnath and I still have to pay a debt of Rs. 1 lakh for the two" said Pappu Chaudhary who had purchased two mules for work in Kedarnath valley during the Char Dham season. Mr. Chaudhary’s mules would carry people for 14 km from Gaurikund to the Kedarnath temple in Rudraprayag district. This stretch earned Mr. Chaudhary good money every year, at least in June when the crowd in the Kedarnath valley reached its peak. "Everything is over" Mr. Chaudhary said showing the list of bills that the pilgrims owe him. "I don’t know where these people are. I have incurred great loss", Mr. Chaudhay said, as most of his customers were either swept away in the flood that hit the Kedarnath valley on June 17, or they were lost. Mr. Chaudhary earned around Rs. 1 lakh a month during the peak season. At off season, the earnings would drastically reduce to Rs. 10,000 a month.

Suresh Kumar, who had also employed horses in the Kedarnath valley said, "These horses were used not only for carrying people but also for carrying ration, water bottles, and other such materials for the shops and hotels from Gaurikund to the Kedarnath valley." Mr. Kumar said carrying people in the 14 km stretch earned him Rs. 1,100 per person and dropping food earned him Rs. 600 for one round between Gaurikund and the Kedarnath temple. Mr. Chaudhary , who was in the valley when the flood hit the area, reached Rudraprayag after five days of struggle and survival at Kedarnath in Rudraprayag district. He said that only on the Sunday did his mules get proper food to eat. For almost five days they would feeding on mere grass. Mr. Chaudhary’s relatives too do the same business in the Kedarnath valley. With no possibility of making a living in the disaster-struck Kedarnath valley anymore, these porters are now left with no other choice than to use these mules on construction sites.

Prem, another porter who had some mules working in the Kedarnath valley said, "I paid Rs. 28,000 to the owner of an empty land to tie my mules and put a tent for myself. Now all that money is wasted as I could not stay in Kedarnath for the entire season."

Dilip Singh Negi, a resident of Baswada in Rudraprayag district said, "The mules, horses, and cattle are lying stranded in the Kedarnath valley. There is no one to rescue them. I have little hope that anyone will go to save them."

One Lucky Mule Airlifted Out
As the Times of India reported, one lucky mule was airlifted to safety. They wrote: For the first time in India, a Helicopter pilot and his co-pilot landed their helicopter in a rocky streambed in the thick forests of Sonaprayag in Uttarakhand and rescued a mule which was stranded for nearly three weeks in the flood-hit area. In the 35-minute operation which began on Monday morning, pilot Captain Bhupinder and his co-pilot Angad carefully landed the chopper at the streambed, sedated from a safe distance and then bundled back to the chopper. The rescue team made sure that they properly tied the male mule, so that it should not create problem till the chopper is landed back. The entire operation was done by Wildlife SOS, parent NGO of Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Center (BBRC) & FRIENDICOES SECA, a Delhi based NGO. A team member had traced the mule which was all alone and gazed around. Equine specialist Akhilesh of Friendicoes SECA who led the heroic rescue operation along with others said, "It was a very dangerous situation when we were dropped off by the helicopter as there were rocks tumbling down from the mountainside all around us. I used a carefully calibrated mixture of xylazine and ketamine to tranquilize the mule. Again we administered more doze after putting it in the chopper, so it would not move inside the helicopter. The pilot and the co-pilot helped us load the sedated animal into the helicopter. The rescue operation was exciting and also exhausting," he said.

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