Volunteering with Goonj in Uttarakhand: Experiencing the Extremes

Volunteering for Goonj in Uttrakhand floods was an overwhelming experience as I encountered so many different extremes.

Right from seeing a so-called mentally challenged person helping out with unloading to seeing fully fit people being bystanders. From seeing hungry villagers line up to collect food (and not leave even in heavy rain for fear of not getting it later) to seeing tons of material going to waste on the roadsides due to lack of proper planning. From seeing leaders like Anshu Gupta and other young people doing such amazing, selfless work on the ground to seeing our politicians battling it out over twitter on who’s responsible for what. From seeing some people sending beautifully packed items for relief to seeing others discarding off even their old undergarments in the guise of relief. From seeing some people call up to encourage to seeing others blatantly question our total integrity while not moving a hand themselves. From seeing some amazing NGOs and group of people trying their best to reach out to far flung villages to seeing some groups just busy clicking photographs and spreading propaganda to gain fame. From seeing extremely poor people helping us out with everything and anything to seeing rich people trying to avoid basic work.

The initial days of setting the base-camp in Rishikesh were the busiest with the volunteers working from 8 AM to 10 PM doing all jobs that came our way. Right from cleaning up an empty hall to unloading full truckloads of material with the only help from people nearby, learning how to stack material to maximise storage space, sleeping in the store without any washroom facilities so as to prevent stealing in the night. The work pace here has been crazy, there are trucks coming in every day to be unloaded and simultaneous dispatches happening to different areas. The store is always bustling with activity and one needs to be on his toes at all times.

The strongest experience so far, however, is that of distributing material in the field. The trips are the toughest part for they are extremely long and one has to usually travel in the trucks/pickups that carry the material. It’s a mix of irony in these trips when you are mesmerized by the beauty of the hills and the mighty rivers and it’s tough to relate them with the heavy damage they have caused. I have been to 2 different places: Chandrapuri village and Kalsi block and in both places I saw extreme destruction. The river has literally cut through the villages and left just rubble behind. The Chandrapuri trip was extremely tiring (420 kms to & fro in straight 27 hours).

The distribution there was easy as volunteers of a rafting group had already set up base and identified the right people. In Kalsi, I witnessed abject poverty. There were 2 widows whose houses and farms had been washed away. With no means of livelihood and place to stay in, they have no clue as to what they will do and there are so many more who have lost everything. For the first time in my life, I witnessed people lining up to take their rations; they even kept standing in heavy rain refusing to go fearing that we might leave. For someone like me who lives in a city, this was a really emotional experience, one that would keep me grounded for life.

One thing that has really negatively impacted me is the blatant and rude questioning of the integrity of people working on the ground. People who need to know how the work is being done here need to visit the ground rather than passing opinions from the comforts of their offices and homes. The disaster is huge and people are in intense suffering. A lot of young people are needed here to do real, selfless work. For those who can’t get to the ground, keep doing your bit while I keep up with mine.

To know how you can help in relief work, visit www.goonj.org

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