Char Dham Yatra: Mess in the Mountains

Environmental experts worry about the fallout of the yatra’s popularity

A signboard on way to Kedarnath from Rishikesh warns the travellers about falling boulders (Photo: Trilochan Bhatt)
A signboard on way to Kedarnath from Rishikesh warns the travellers about falling boulders (Photo: Trilochan Bhatt)

Rashme Sehgal

Baljit Singh from Amritsar reached Kedarnath on April 24 to get a darshan of Lord Shiva. He was, of course, not alone. Thousands of pilgrims had made the journey alongside Singh. Yet Singh was denied the darshan he had trekked all this way for.

New rules this year required all pilgrims to register online. Pilgrims without the mandatory registration would be denied entry into the temple precincts. Luckily, Singh knew of the change, and had registered his and his companions beforehand. Yet he—and scores of other ‘registered’ pilgrims—could not get in.

Meanwhile, thousands who did not appear to have the requisite ‘tokens’ managed to elbow their way inside the temple. No registration was needed for residents of the state per the rule—but there was no way in the melee to figure out who were the residents and who were not.

As if this was not bad enough, the heavy influx of pilgrims prompted hoteliers in Kedarnath to hike their rates to Rs 15,000 a night and more. Baljit Singh took to social media to express his horror at the goings on: “Where are the famed Uttarakhand policemen who are supposed to be present here to manage the crowds? How are poor pilgrims expected to pay such exorbitant rates? The alternative is to freeze under the open skies with temperatures well below freezing point.”

With 15,000 pilgrims reaching Kedarnath every day ever since the Char Dham Yatra started on April 22, the state administration is at its wit’s end on how to cope with the massive crowds thronging this site, given that there is accommodation for only 7,500 people, said Mayur Dixit, district magistrate of Rudraprayag.

To make matters worse, it is snowing heavily in all the four dhams (pilgrimage spots on this circuit). The Uttarakhand meteorological department has warned the public to postpone their trip till May 5, as heavy snowfall is expected in these upper Himalayan regions.

Despite the local administration pleading with pilgrims to postpone their visit, such a sustained hype has been created around this pilgrimage that 30,000 people had registered to visit Kedarnath on May 1. In fact, till April 28, over 22 lakh pilgrims had registered for the Char Dham yatra.

Baljit Singh, then, was voicing the anguish of thousands of pilgrims who have arrived but not been able to obtain the darshan. Many complained that they had received no prior warning about the inclement weather, while district magistrate Dixit claims he has been issuing regular warnings asking pilgrims to postpone their visit and to visit Kedarnath only if they had confirmed hotel bookings.

Already three pilgrims have died of heart failure caused by high-altitude sickness in Kedarnath since the yatra commenced, while another pilgrim slipped and fell to his death at Gaurikund.

Another pilgrim pointed out that the walking lanes from Gaurikund to Kedarnath are narrow and the passing horses can hurt people. The shortcuts have a high elevation and take a heavy toll on the body.

Last year, in 2022, as many as 311 pilgrims died while undertaking this arduous pilgrimage, the majority of deaths having taken place in Kedarnath, though Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri also saw a sizeable number of deaths of pilgrims last year.

The state authorities decided to be more cautious this year and placed a cap of 30,000 tourist arrivals each day for the four dhams. Yet chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami was forced to withdraw this order, following pressure from the community of priests, tour operators and hoteliers.

The yatra is a massive revenue and employment generator for the beleaguered state and fetches a revenue of over Rs 7,500 crore annually. The focus is therefore on numbers, with nearly 45 lakh pilgrims having visited the four dhams last year, while 1.40 lakh more people availed of the helicopter service to travel up to Kedarnath.

Of course, all this is being ensured by a ruthless exploitation of the state’s natural resources. On April 24, Dehradun-based environmentalist Reenu Paul counted 65 helicopter sorties from Dehradun to Kedarnath. “Frequent helicopter rides to and from the pilgrimage site contribute to carbon emissions that accelerate the melting and recession of glaciers apart from causing noise pollution,” said Paul.

Experts also raise questions about how this revenue-driven model is riding roughshod over this ecologically sensitive environment, with no lessons learnt from the major subsidence that continues to afflict Joshimath and several other towns in the state.

Hemant Dhyani, environmental expert and former member of the Supreme Court’s high-powered committee on the Char Dham project, had warned that the state government was exploiting these fragile Himalayas much beyond their carrying capacity. This commercial exploitation can be gauged from the fact that this year, massive posters of Paytm QR codes have been placed outside both the Kedarnath and Badrinath temples.

Sadly, the situation is no better at the Badrinath shrine, situated at a height of 10,000 feet. One of the key reasons for this is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants both Kedarnath and Badrinath to be redeveloped along the lines of the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi.

The Kashi Vishwanath development project was awarded to Ahmedabad-based architectural firm INI Design Studio. They have been asked to give a makeover to both Kedarnath and Badrinath. An allocation of Rs 1,000 crore has been made for this reconstruction, with the funds collected primarily from various PSUs.

INI Design Studio helped conceptualise the large statue of Adi Shankaracharya put up behind the Kedarnath temple in 2022, which was inaugurated by PM Modi.

The reconstruction work being undertaken in Kedarnath is extremely ambitious and involves the addition of a 70 ft wide and 840 ft long concrete road from the temple to the Kedarpuri suburbs. Keeping in mind the floods of 2013, where the waters of the Saraswati and the Mandakini rivers overflowed into the town, an 850-ft-long three-tier retaining wall has been constructed along the Saraswati and a 350 ft protection cover along the Mandakini. A hospital, a theatre, a bridge and a pilgrims’ ghat are also on the anvil, besides a sewage treatment plant.

Experts from the Wadia Institute of Geology and the Geoloigical Survey of India are a little mystified by the construction of the walls around the rivers, warning that such work is completely unsustainable. Leading geologist S. Sati said, “Hundreds of crores are being spent on these walls, but tell me, which wall will be able to withstand [the] landslides or floods?”

Regardless, reconstruction work in Badrinath is being pursued at a furious pace since September last year.

Modi had emphasised the need for a complete facelift for this ancient city, insisting there be an increase in hotels and accommodations, space for parks, and also the construction of underground tunnels for parking vehicles. Work at these sites is being directly monitored by the PMO with no local inputs.

Atul Sati, heading the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, points out that reconstruction work in Badrinath has resulted in the demolition of old dharamshalas. This has left several thousand poorer pilgrims stranded.

“Earlier, pilgrims would be accommodated in hotels in Joshimath,” Sati added. “This year, the administration is not allowing pilgrims to stay in Joshimath, so the hotels of our city, even those located in safe areas, are going a-begging.” He also spoke of road traffic being moved up to Badrinath late at night, which is very risky because the Govindghat road connecting the two cities is frequently closed for repairs. “On Saturday, it was closed for over four hours for repair work,” he said.

Heavy rainfall has seen an increase in the landslides across several arterial roads, causing inconvenience to pilgrims and the local population alike. However, the government seems unconcerned over the fallout of having such a large population descend suddenly on these ecologically sensitive mountains. Even worse are the huge amounts of garbage being strewn across the hillsides and into the rivers by the pilgrims.

Chief minister Dhami, meanwhile, is planning to build more temples devoted to different mythological themes, on the lines of the Kedarnath and Badrinath temples, so as to attract an even larger number of tourists. No plans have been put forward to improve basic services and amenities.

The state fails to understand, perhaps, that following sustainable tourism practices will help pay greater dividends in the long run. The present demonic exploitation of this sacred Devbhoomi (abode of the gods) will only serve to destroy it.

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