Nature’s vehemence left a swathe of disaster in Uttarakhand. While most of the country was dazed and shaken, gazing helplessly at the images on their TV sets or newspaper, there were some who dived into action. Neeraj Kohli was one of those who decided that he just could not sit and stare or commiserate while people were in so much distress – he had to help. We asked the 45-year-old former IT professional from Delhi about his experience, and share his story:
I grew up in Ludhiana, but I am from Dehradun originally. Having worked in the IT sector for two decades, I moved to the service sector in 2000, and am now a full time teacher of The Art of Living. I currently work in one of Asia’s largest slums in South Delhi, Sangam Vihar, with the project Manthan in addition to conducting regular workshops for defence, para-military, corporates, colleges and general public.
My family – a wife and daughter, as well as an elderly mother-in-law – are extremely supportive of my endeavors. I have a deep desire to serve, and when this disaster at Uttarakhand happened, I simply got into my car and drove to join my team already boosted by the presence of a doctor who came from Mumbai with 70kg medicines.
Though many Art of Living volunteers have been there for almost a month now, I was in Uttarakhand for twelve days. For the first couple of days I assisted Swami Divyanandji at Rishikesh base camp in establishing a volunteer base and in storing relief materials, packaging and distributing relief material. Then, with a 20-member strong team of professionals, businessmen, doctors and lawyers from various places including Kolkota, Mumbai, Indore and Lucknow we went to Chinyalisaur, where rescued people were being brought in by helicopter from Harshil Air Base.
At Chinyalisaur, the General Manager of an electric plant offered to house us. Our team took inputs from civil administration, rescue operation leaders and Air Force personnel and began the work. Lot of relief supplies were pouring in from all parts of the world. But this was not enough. The affected people had been deeply traumatized and shocked with the devastation. They had lost all hope with death of most people around them, loss of livelihood and total material loss. Many were almost delirious, needing emotional support and reassurance. Also the anger of the people at their own plight was palpable. There was a lot of anger – they could not appreciate the efforts of the disaster management teams who were doing everything possible to mitigate the tragedy.
We decided to immediately start trauma relief workshops for the affected people. Over the next few days, we conducted trauma relief sessions for more than 1500 people. We worked with groups of 70 to 80 people at a time, taking them through breathing practices, meditation and yoga to calm their minds and emotions and bring them back to normalcy.
My team extended trauma relief sessions in Matli at Uttarkashi also. Art of Living trauma relief sessions helped people manage their minds and face the situation with calmness and courage. We’d notice the relief on their faces immediately, as they hugged or cried, and slowly began to look forward to living once again. It’s not easy to put this into words: people regained their faith, which is the nourishment for soul, and this became the reassuring factor in that terrible time of material & emotional loss. It’s at times like these that one realizes that we are all connected, no matter which regions or backgrounds we come from. Calamities bring us face to face with this truth.
The work done by us made the operations smoother – we became a sort of a bridge between the people and disaster management teams. People became cooperative and began to understand the efforts of the rescue teams. They stopped being irritable and angry and allowed those needing attention and priority evacuation to go first while patiently waiting for their turns despite having to waiting for long hours.
It was a tough situation for the army staff in the area – Matli, Uttarkashi, Chinyali. Stress levels were high among the disaster management and rescue teams as well, what with having to constantly return to the site of the catastrophe and witness its tragic consequences for over two weeks.
We were requested by Brigadier Gautam to conduct a trauma relief workshop for soldiers at Chinyali, which we did. We also conducted workshops for police personnel of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), and the contract labourers of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), who were working to reconstruct roads.
The result was that these people came to appreciate the importance of their own work. Instead of doing it as something in the line of duty, they went back to their work with a new inspiration. They became more sensitive to the needs of others and could deal with people without losing their tempers. Rescuing over one lakh people in difficult terrain is not the easiest of jobs, but the ITBP actually did it successfully.
The situation in Uttarakhand was so tough that even as a volunteer, you had to take care of yourself first – having enough water, tents, supplies, etc. I feel good that I could be of use here. Having said this, there is a lot more waiting to be done. Rehabilitation projects need to be taken up, homes need to be rebuilt – a proper survey is required. I will go back to Uttarakhand soon and join the team members who have stayed back and continue to provide relief and rehabilitation to the people.
By Sheel Parekh