Char Dham yatra: Say hello to blind faith

Why such mismanagement of an event which fetches Uttarakhand hundreds of crores in revenue and provides employment to thousands?

Visitors throng Kedarnath in Uttarakhand on 10 May
Visitors throng Kedarnath in Uttarakhand on 10 May

Rashme Sehgal

The rain gods have been kind. Heavy rainfall across Uttarakhand on 10 May helped put out over a thousand fires that had already burnt down vast tracts of its precious deodar and chir forests. Before it could recover from that calamity, this fragile state finds itself in the midst of another disaster.

The Char Dham yatra to Gangotri, Yamunotri and Kedarnath started on 10 May. The doors to the Badrinath temple were opened on 12 May. Over one lakh pilgrims made a headlong rush to the shrine — and the arrangements to manage this sudden uncontrolled traffic were just not adequate.

Two pilgrims died in the melee making their way up to Yamunotri, while several were injured. Traffic jams to Yamunotri extended for more than 5 km, with yatris (pilgrims) complaining of being stuck in their vehicles for hours on end. Yatris trekking up to Kedarnath were ill prepared for the snow and heavy rain that awaited them at those heights. Hotels were charging astronomical amounts that they could ill afford, and no other provision had been made.

The story in Badrinath was no different. Pilgrims swaddled in blankets to keep out the cold began to form long queues outside the Badrinath temple from 2.00 am in order to get a glimpse of the lord as soon as the temple doors opened after the long winter break. But with the pandas giving priority to VIP darshans, the common people, who had waited for 8 to 10 hours, broke into angry protests and sloganeering.

Why should there be so much mismanagement for such a prestigious event which fetches the state hundreds of crores in revenue and provides employment to thousands?

Uttarakhand chief secretary Radha Raturi has sent out a letter emphasising that since they were expecting 10 lakh yatris in the first 10 days, she had requested ‘dignitaries and state officials to avoid visiting the Dham from 10–25 May’.

Raturi fails to specify how the situation is likely to improve after 25 May. Chances are, it will only get worse, given the unpredictable weather conditions and the fact that landslides have increased with soil further loosening because of the forest fires.

What brings millions of devotees to the Char Dham given that in 2023, more than 300 yatris died not only in landslides but also owing to cardiac problems exacerbated by high altitudes? What is the psychology of the average yatri that makes them rush to these shrines without keeping in mind basic health and safety issues?

The opening of the Char Dham yatra is preceded by a mesmerising advertising campaign on social media and television. The music and the words are so seductive that for yatris, it is akin to setting foot in paradise. The bait is hard to resist.

Some changes have been introduced. For one, all pilgrims are now required to register online. Without this mandatory registration, they are not allowed entry into the temple precincts. This does not seem to have curbed their enthusiasm, however.

The barrage of criticism that the administration faced in mishandling the first three days has forced them to initiate further changes. With vehicles being stuck for five to six hours on the road leading up to Yamunotri, district magistrate M.S. Bisht has stated that a minimum number of vehicles will now be allowed to ply on the roads leading up to both Gangotri and Yamunotri. Gates have been set up at 13 points along the route to divert all excess vehicles thereby enabling a smoother flow.

Locals living in these areas have taken to social media to register their complaints at this large influx of pilgrims. One hotel owner in Chamoli tweeted, "We welcome the yatris but there must be some regulation. The government has failed to create proper infrastructure. The result is that we have to make arrangements in case of some emergency but we have limited means at our disposal."

Residents demand that the flow to each dham (holy site) be regulated. “At an average, not more than 5,000 people should be allowed to visit each dham in a day. There is no space to accommodate more,” said Amol Rawat, a businessman from Badrinath.

Atul Sati, who heads the Joshimath Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, regrets the lack of health facilities along the length of the Char Dham yatra. “There are no cardiologists, no oxygen cylinders, no basic health facilities,” he says. “The public must be given time to acclimatise before reaching these heights”.

Another major point made by local residents is that yatris must be warned not to throw garbage all over the place. By the time the yatra ends, there are huge mountains of garbage strewn across the hillsides which make their way into the rivers, polluting them even further. A social activist from Gangotri pointed out, “Many of the people who come on the first couple of days are social influencers and bloggers who are being paid to visit these places. This is a new trend."

Environmentalist Reenu Paul regrets that the government is putting so much strain on the ecosystem. “We had just finished with the forest fires and now we have hordes of people rushing up these mountains. Our Garhwal Himalayas are being given no time to regenerate,” she says.

Experts also raise questions about how this revenue-driven model is riding roughshod over such an ecologically sensitive environment, with no lessons learned from the major subsidence that continues in 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 far 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 so that people can give dakshina (monetary offerings) through online payments.

Unpredictable rainfall patterns, massive construction and hill cutting of arterial roads have seen an increase in landslides. However, the government seems unconcerned over the fallout of having such a large population descend suddenly on these slopes.

Chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami is promoting the idea of building more dhams in the state, obviously to attract more tourists. UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, on his recent visit to the shrine of Neem Karoli Baba in Kainchi, insisted this too must be developed into a dham which would attract more than five lakh yatris a day.

What havoc these unsustainable practises will have on the environment does not worry our politicians. Such demonic exploitation of our sacred devbhoomi (abode of the gods) can only serve to destroy it.

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