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'Village of Widows' Struggles After Indian Floods

December 19, 2013

By Biswajeet Banerjee, The Associated Press

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DEOLI-BENIGRAM, India - The Indian government still doesn`t have a final toll for the thousands of people killed in massive flash floods earlier this year, but in the Himalayan hamlet known as the Village of Widows, the loss is all too specific: 57 people killed, about a quarter of its population.

Six months after walls of melted glacier, mud and debris came crashing down the mountainside, the village officially named Deoli-Benigram has 37 widows from the floods, making up about a third of its remaining inhabitants and giving the town its grim new name.

Along with their loved ones, the grieving women`s livelihoods were also lost, and they say the state`s help is not enough.

"Just six months ago, we were the richest family in this village, and now we do not know where our next meal will come from," says Bijaya Devi, tears rolling down her face as her orphaned 1-year-old grandson reaches up to touch her cheek. Devi lost her husband, three of her sons and a nephew in the June 17 floods, which devastated the temple town of Kedarnath where most of the men in the village made their livings.

At age 64, Devi is the village`s oldest widow. The youngest is her 22-year-old daughter-in-law. Both their husbands worked in the family`s small lodge and grocery store in Kedarnath which catered to pilgrims to the shrine.

The Indian government has been criticized for its slow response to the floods in the northern state of Uttarakhand, near Tibet. In all, about 1,000 bodies were found and some 5,700 people are missing.

The early monsoon floods struck near the end of the summer Hindu pilgrimage to the Kedarnath shrine - one of four major temple towns in the area 11,500 feet high in the Garhwal Himalayan mountain range. Many of the surrounding people depend on temple tourism to make their livings, either as priests, innkeepers or guides with mules to take pilgrims up the steep trails.

The Kedarnath temple - dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva - was not badly damaged itself but the area around it is still strewn with piles of debris up to 10 feet high.

The government has distributed 500,000 rupees (about $8,000) to families in the area who lost a breadwinner, but the villagers say what they need are jobs, and for roads and electricity to be restored.

They worry that next summer`s pilgrims won`t come to the devastated area, even if they did have a way to rebuild their businesses.

But with the harsh Himalayan winter setting in, many are concerned just with surviving.

"Earlier, the life in the hills was dangerous, but now it is hell. There are no roads, no water, no electricity and no jobs," said Vinod Kumar in the village of Bhatwadi, also near Kedarnath. "People in many villages are still living in make-shift tents. How can they survive in tents? How will they keep themselves warm?"

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Story Image: Homes destroyed six months ago by massive flooding remains among the lingering rubble. (Kumar Singh, AP)

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