Tuesday, March 26, 2019
Sunday Special » Kaleidoscope

Posted at: Apr 30, 2017, 1:07 AM; last updated: Apr 30, 2017, 1:07 AM (IST)

The Colonel who dares the hills

When the PM marks the annual reopening of Kedarnath shrine on May 3, thousands of pilgrims wouldn’t perhaps know the men who brought it all back – from destruction of 2013 to reconstruction

NATURAL disasters of the scale of 2013 Uttarkashi deluge are unforgiving, unforgettable: nearly 5,000 people were killed as dozens of small villages, bridges and narrow passages simply disappeared. In government records many people continue to remain untraceable, presumed dead. Nearly four years later, it all looks as if everything is back to normal: 3 lakh pilgrims visited Kedarnath in 2016. Or is there someone not letting the faith slip away?

Ask Col. Ajay Kothiyal, Principal of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (Uttarkashi), you’d know how a soldier can steel his will to achieve the impossible. Today, when pilgrims on Char Dham Yatra feel safe around the arduous, serpentine route to the Kedarnath shrine, they wouldn’t perhaps know who Col Kothiyal and his men are. Or, how in just three years, the same treacherous routes have turned safe, inviting no-worry smiles from those who pass. 

June 16-17, 2013, were most dreadful: rivers and streams were overflowing fast and furious, devouring everything that came their way. Thousands were stranded, many had already died. The Colonel acted on his instincts, gathered his men and helped in rescuing more than 6,000 pilgrims, including 46 foreigners, in one day, June 16. 

The 15-km original Rambara-Kedarnath pedestrian route had vanished. No agency was willing to undertake reconstruction of roads at those heights. Months later, the ace mountaineer from 4th Garhwal Regiment of the Army, Col Kothiyal, got his mission: rebuild the collapsed road infrastructure -- at more than 11,000 feet -- at Kedarnath. 

“I had a dozen-member team. We had to jump from our helicopter in March 2014 to access the ground reality at Kedarnath. We stayed there for two days and trekked down the damaged route. A couple of weeks later, we started the reconstruction work. We are still involved in the work in flood-hit Kedarnath valley,” says Col Kothiyal. This unleashed the massive reconstruction effort. 

Col Ajay Kothiyal organized around 1,200 Nepalese labourers who were provided with basic equipment and clothing to brave the snow which in March was over 10-ft deep. The officer then chalked out a new alignment on way to Kedarnath, starting from Rambara. They worked round-the-clock in rain, snow and sleet. The team managed to build a landing strip for IAF’s MI-26 helicopters to land. 

The Col and his team soon realized they needed heavy equipment. So, heavy earth-moving machinery were taken in parts by helicopters and reassembled at those heights. “More than 130-ton machinery was brought to Kedarnath by M1-26 helicopters in a span of a few days,” said the Colonel.

Starting from Sonprayag, his team set up camps for labourers and storing equipment. They rebuilt the pedestrian path involving construction of washed away culverts and bridges. The work continued even in winters when the temperature dips several degrees below zero and snow accumulates up to 15-ft high. 

The Col. has stayed at Kedarnath for the past three years, removing debris at Kedarpuri and rebuilding 113 houses and guest houses of the “pandas” (the priest community). He and his team have already finished constructing 100 modern huts for pilgrims and a subsidized canteen for them. “We involve local residents and buy their vegetables and crops. This way we win their confidence,” says Col. Kothiyal, recipient of Kirti Chakra, Shaurya Chakra and Vishisht Sewa Medal (VSM). “I am proud of my team and our accomplishment,” says the Colonel. 

Training the youth

Col. Ajay Kothiyal is also instrumental in training more than 4,000 youths for recruitment in the Army, paramilitary forces and the police -- free of cost. “When we rescued the stranded pilgrims and tourists on way to Gangotri in 2013, we saw many unemployed youth requesting to be enrolled in the Army. I decided to train them,” he says. “I started off with 30 boys at Uttarkashi and trained them for written and physical tests. In the next Army recruitment, 28 of them were selected.”


All readers are invited to post comments responsibly. Any messages with foul language or inciting hatred will be deleted. Comments with all capital letters will also be deleted. Readers are encouraged to flag the comments they feel are inappropriate.
The views expressed in the Comments section are of the individuals writing the post. The Tribune does not endorse or support the views in these posts in any manner.
Share On