Pennington travels to India for flood relief effort

March 3, 2014

In January, Dr. Brian Pennington, Maryville College professor of religion and chair of the Division of Humanities, traveled to the city of Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand, India, to organize relief efforts for the monsoon that struck the Indian Himalayans in June.

Pennington said the storm was devastating to the Uttarkashi people.

“In this disaster, 10,000 known people lost their lives. Much of the city of Uttarkashi itself doesn’t exist anymore,” Pennington said. “When I arrived, not really knowing what I would see, there were large sections of the city along the river banks that the water had just swept away. There are no ruined buildings and there’s no debris; it’s just the riverbed, which is four times as wide as it was before. Nothing is there where people once lived.”

Because the region relies so heavily on tourism – and the monsoon struck in the middle of tourist season – Pennington said that the storm had, and is still having, a severe impact on the city’s economy. The city of Uttarkashi is a hub in the pilgrimage circuit that many Hindus visit in the summer months while traveling to one of the four sacred sites, which are located at the edges of glaciers or other rivers where tributaries become the Ganges River, in the Himalayan Mountains.

“There is no work and no money coming in order to sustain everyday life. The flood had drastic effects,” Pennington said. “Now, the big concern is what will happen in this coming year. The roads are still a wreck and are not roads by any definition in many places. People are very worried about this. Their entire livelihood depends on tourism, their family’s livelihood depends on this and their entire well-being.”

During the three weeks of his stay, Pennington sought to meet needs that government or NGO relief had not met. His started an online fundraising campaign on fundrazr.com that reached $2,500, and he said every rupee is going directly toward meeting needs.

“People are dealing with loss of life, unemployment and loss of land,” Pennington said. “The response people gave was beautiful. They were clearly compelled by the story.”

Pennington collaborated with several colleagues while in India on the flood relief mission, many of them social activists and journalists whose professional missions are confronting government inefficiency and arguing for sustainable development in the region that doesn’t depend only on tourism. Together, they observed the greatest needs of the Uttarkashi people and determined three best uses for the donations received.

“Relief money was used to provide school supplies, school uniforms and school fees for families affected, because evacuation happened so rapidly that families had to get out immediately, and everything was gone,” Pennington said. “There is also only one hospital in the area, where supplies were devastated. We supplied blankets, as there is no central heating in India, and basic food staples. Thirdly, we reached out to people so deeply affected by the flood and didn’t receive government aid for some bureaucratic reason.”

Pennington said it is possible he may return to Uttarkashi for the summer and begin fundraising efforts again in order to continue the relief effort.

Pennington receives AAR Individual Research Grant

While in Uttarkashi, Pennington received the American Academy of Religion’s Individual Research Grant for his research project titled Natural Disaster and Divine Agency: Hindu Theodicies of Climate Change.

The research project of ten years included charting the growth and change in religious practice and the emergence of new religious movements and centers in Uttarkashi, including new meditation centers for spiritual retreat along the riverbank. The research soon turned into a book proposal, Pennington said, about entrepreneurial religion in an area with a history of thousands of years of meditation practices.

In the wake of the floods that occurred last June, however, Pennington said that the story started to look different to him.

“My book was a story of rapid growth and optimism and religion as a means that this people turned its fortunes around and joined the rest of developing India. It was followed by this crushing devastation,” Pennington said. “Now, the book is going to turn its attention to the effects of climate change on religious practice on peoples’ hopes and dreams in this really ecologically sensitive area.”

He said that the new research funding from the AAR will go toward assessing the damage of the monsoon and talking to people about their understanding of the flood to develop material for a concluding chapter in his book.

“Before these floods, this was a story with a sort of optimistic tone to it,” Pennington said. “Now, the book is probably going to have a more measured and somber kind of assessment, because it seems unlikely that this region can ever sustain the kind of development and human presence it needs, and the cost of that is to real peoples’ lives.”

 By Mary Moates '14, Communications Assistant