"Life for the poor in India is so different from the way we Japanese live”
A mini army of Japanese students has just finished helping to build modest homes and a community centre in this hilly region that was devastated in the Kedarnath floods last June.
A total of 43 young women and 30 young men carried sand and boulders from near the Mandakini river in the valley here up a winding mountainous path, literally sprinting up and down, from morning until evening.
Young Japanese students and Indians pose for a photograph on Mandakini river bed near Batwari Sonar village in Uttarakhand (Photo: IANS)
Half-a-dozen girls and boys used shovels to dig out sand and fill jute bags, which were passed from one Japanese student to another, like in a relay race, all the way up the hill - some 350 metres above the river.
The sand was piled in a corner of a Hindu temple ground in this village. Small and large stones, also ferried by hand, were placed around the sand like a protective wall.
It was clearly no easy task. The Japanese - aged 18 to 23 - sweated away despite the pleasant weather as they slogged for four consecutive days, wearing loose fitting workmen's clothes, gloves and cloth caps. Some had facemasks to keep away the dust.
A few laid stones and put cement as they took part in building simple but earthquake-resistant two-room houses funded by Mata Amritanandamayi, an Indian spiritual guru widely known as Amma.
Nagahiro Akiyama, a 22-year-old from Fukushima, explained why he was visiting India.
"I was in Andhra Pradesh two years ago and was shocked to see how the poor lived," the young man said, speaking through an interpreter. "Life for the poor in India is so different from the way we Japanese live.
"If we can help others, it will give energy to the suffering," he said, standing close to the fast-flowing Mandakini river, which originates from a glacier near the Kedarnath shrine, 80 km further up the treacherous hills. "We also want to give Indians some unforgettable memories."
Akiyama said each student spent around $1,800 - earned from doing part-time work in Japan -- to fly to India during a two-week recess.
Kaneko Yasuyuki of Osaka, 21, added: "If people are suffering, I want to help."
The 60 families in Batwari Sonar village were more than impressed.
"It is fascinating to see these Japanese do so much for us," said Vikas Lingwal, a 20-year-old village resident who joined them in the voluntary work. "We need to emulate their discipline and team spirit,” he said.
The Japanese are from the Japan-based International Volunteer University Students Association. They came to Uttarakahand in response to a call from Amma.
Spiritual activist Mukesh said the Japanese had no grouse as they were squeezed into the only hotel in this region that survived last year's terrible disaster. Three to five students occupied every room.
They ate the simple rice and dal served to them -- along with an occasional sweet dish.
Another spiritual activist, Gautam, an American, also gave full marks to the Japanese.
"They are willing to do anything," Gautam said. "They don't work as individuals but as a team. They are incredible."
It was the Mandakini river that swelled to unimaginable proportions after last year's cloudburst above the Kedarnath region and torrential downpour, washing away thousands of people, cattle and buildings in just two days.
The area in and around Batwari Sona saw 692 deaths - a portion of the estimated 5,000 or so the tragedy killed by official count. Unofficial sources insist the fatalities were much more.
A dozen hotels that were almost touching the Mandakini were washed away. Many from the village who worked in Kedarnath perished.
There was universal appreciation for the young Japanese, who won numerous hearts by greeting the villagers with "Namah Shivaya!" Locals also feel that the government has let them down.
By the time four days got over, there was perfect camaraderie between the Japanese and the villagers. Local women and students also carried stones to the temple complex.
"My god, these girls are so pretty! I hope they don't get dark working under this sun," said Rumi Devi, a woman in her 40s, patting the head of a first-year student from a Tokyo university.
As a parting gift, the Japanese cleaned up the village on the fifth day, removing garbage and filth. "We are really going to miss them" Sahil Sajwan, a 17-year-old Indian, told this correspondent. - IANS