Char Dham Yatra: An avalanche of indifference

The Uttarakhand state administration won’t turn away Char Dham pilgrims this tourist season, it seems—warnings be damned

Char Dham Yatra: An avalanche of indifference

Pankaj Chaturvedi

Unseasonal rain and snowfall in the upper reaches of the Himalayas has sent alarm bells ringing ahead of the Char Dham Yatra due to start on April 22, when the gateways to Yamunotri and Gangotri will be opened to the public. Traditionally, the pilgrimage commences at Yamunotri, passes through Gangotri and Kedarnath, and culminates in Badrinath, which will open on April 27.

Three weeks before the scheduled start, the number of registrations, made mandatory this year, and facilitated by online registration, has already swelled to a staggering 6.51 lakh. This is likely to shoot up even further, with residents of Uttarakhand (exempted from registration) joining in. Registration for the well-heeled pilgrims who opt for the helicopter service is yet to begin.

Preparations to receive more than a million pilgrims, and thousands of vehicles, have been hampered by the snowfall that marked the last days of March and continued into April. Work on the second phase of reconstruction at Kedarnath was stalled, and workers forced to come down to the lower reaches. The temple premises at Kedarnath were blanketed four to five feet deep in snow. Helicopters have been ferrying workers and equipment to Kedarnath to clear the ground. An orange alert was sounded by the meteorological department, which anticipates further snowfall above 3,500 metres in Chamoli, Bageshwar and Pithoragarh.

The panic that was Joshimath in January already seems to have receded from public memory. Those who had been evacuated from unsafe houses and put up in hotels have been asked to vacate their rooms ahead of the tourist season. With bookings coming in from the Char Dham pilgrims, 694 people from 81 families have no idea what lies ahead.

Pre-fabricated houses put up by the state government for the rehabilitation of the homeless are not habitable, residents maintain. Besides, the allotments are yet to be made. The expected influx of 5,000 vehicles every day carrying pilgrims several times that number is bound to put further pressure on the hills, the highways and the rivers, they fear. Whether this deluge of footfalls and tyre-treads will cause more subsidence and render more families homeless is a question that officials are loath to answer.

While Uttarakhand chief minister Pushkar Dhami has solicited financial help worth Rs 29,000 crore from the Centre, people in Joshimath remain sceptical. The three-month long agitation by residents demanding a comprehensive rehabilitation package and stoppage of the NTPC power plant in the region continues amidst fresh apprehensions that the tourist season will precipitate yet another series of crises ranging from subsidence and landslides to flooding.

Public memory being notoriously short, it is not surprising that the devastation at Kedarnath in June 2013 is no longer a talking point.

The last decade has witnessed dramatic climate change, and its effects in this region have been intensified by a relentless assault on nature in the form of frenzied construction and expansion of highways.

The highway connecting Rishikesh with Badrinath extends to the Indo-China border. The 12 kilometre stretch that passes through Joshimath remains vulnerable.

Officials seem to be doing little more than keeping their fingers crossed. Landslides are occurring daily in as many as 20 spots along the 131 kilometre highway connecting Gochar to Badrinath. Marwari is bearing the brunt of falling rocks and debris while Nandprayag and Vishnuprayag are among other such extremely vulnerable spots.

Garhwal DIG Karan Nangyal has voiced his concern on the state of the highway to Yamunotri. With road-widening going on at several places, there are a number of bottlenecks, which will make managing heavy traffic even trickier, while negotiating the 110-kilometre highway is sure to test even the most intrepid.

Landslides have also been reported along the stretch between Rudraprayag and Gaurikund on the highway to Kedarnath. Stopgap arrangements have not been able to secure those spots. Fifty two kilometres on the 140 km road to Gangotri have been declared sensitive and risky.

In 2018, a report jointly prepared by the Uttarakhand government and the World Bank had identified 6,300 zones as being prone to landslides in the state, with the indiscriminate felling of trees and drilling of hillsides being the major culprits. Not only have well-founded warnings and sobering numbers gone unheeded, felling and drilling have actually accelerated since.

For sustainable development to be more than an empty phrase in these hills, regulating the influx of tourists and pilgrims, and reducing the pressure on already straitened natural resources are the need of the hour.

However, trading in faith has proved to be more urgent and indeed more lucrative, as the situation in the hills snowballs from bad to worse.

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