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The great Himalayan tragedy

If we don’t heed warning bells in the mountains, the Char Dham temple bells may soon fall silent

The great Himalayan tragedy

Ominous: The Char Dham Yatra is a pointer to what awaits us across the Himalayan range. PTI



Shyam Saran

Former Foreign Secretary

IN the many years of journeying through the Himalayas, I have never experienced a sense of impending doom as I do now. I have witnessed how in the name of development, there has been relentless spoliation of this sacred space, the scarring of its pristine landscapes, the dispossession of the rarest of the rare birds and animals which have dwelt in its embrace since ancient times and even of human communities which, in their ways of life, traditions and beliefs, have been its most faithful sentinels. The Himalayas are a “junction between worlds that touch and do not touch each other” (Axel Michaels in Hinduism Past and Present). The Sanskrit word ‘tirtha’ or pilgrimage has just precisely that notion of a crossing place, a transition. And that is why this entire mountain zone is sacred and a place of pilgrimage.

Long stretches of the Char Dham highway have been repeatedly hit by landslides, requiring expensive repairs.

The memory of its dramatic beginnings runs in our veins. The sea is its mother, and it is for good reason that the people of Nepal call the Everest Sagarmatha or the brow of the ocean. But for human despoilers, the sacredness has become an asset to exploit for profit. The Everest has become a high-altitude rubbish heap and its crest one more tick on a bucket list of adventures. Our Char Dham are no longer hallowed places of pilgrimage but flourishing destinations for religious tourism. Gangotri is now a seedy urban sprawl. The main temple lies festooned with rainbow lights, while loudspeakers belt out raucous bhajans which the roar of the young river cannot drown out. It is only a matter of time before you may book a suite in a modern hotel in Gaumukh, promising breathtaking views of the famous glacier and the Bhagirathi peaks. Gaumukh means the mouth of the sacred cow and has, therefore, immense potential for mass-scale religious tourism.

The Char Dham Yatra, as it has been developed over the past couple of decades, is a pointer to what awaits us across the Himalayan range, for every patch of this space is associated with legends sacred to the many faiths of the sub-continent. Latest reports indicate that since the shrines opened around May 10-11, around 950,000 pilgrims had already descended on Gangotri, Badrinath, Kedarnath and Yamunotri. We still have over five months to go before the shrines close in early November. The Uttarakhand Government has instituted a registration system to regulate entry to the shrines. But the daily limits permitted 20,000 for Kedarnath, 18,000 for Badrinath, 11,000 for Gangotri and 9,000 for Yamunotri. These are staggering numbers for such fragile and sensitive mountain locations. The speed and scale of expansion of religious tourism is evident from the footfall of 5,600,000 recorded last year, which was 1,000,000 more than in 2022, though it includes Hemkunt Sahib, which has smaller numbers overall.

If one goes to travel websites, there are several two-, three- and four-star hotels listed in Badrinath and Kedarnath. There are daily helicopter services to each of these spots. One chopper nearly crashed near the Kedarnath shrine a few days ago. Over 50 people have lost their lives travelling to these rarefied heights in the past two weeks and the police have arrested more than 50 youth at Kedarnath for drunk and disorderly behaviour. But lots of money is being made. The past two weeks have resulted in an estimated record turnover of over Rs 200 crore for hoteliers, restaurant owners, mule drivers and porters.

For such large numbers, immense quantities of food, bottled water, gas cylinders for cooking and diesel for power generators have to be carried. A government study, conducted a few years ago when the traffic was much less, found that 23,000 tonnes of solid waste was being generated annually along the track to one of the dhams, with no systematic disposal arrangement. One shudders to think what the volume may be now with much, much larger numbers.

The four- to six-lane Char Dham highway is bringing devotees and other tourists in droves to the entire Alaknanda river valley this summer. When the 127-km Rishikesh-to-Karnaprayag railway line along this valley is completed by the year-end, even larger hordes of people will crowd into these once-remote and pristine locations. A large number of fancy hotels and guesthouses have come up to cater to the expanding number of visitors. Even in the protected sanctuary of Binsar, the sides of the road are piled high with solid waste, in particular plastic waste.

One cannot just make the mountain zone a no-go area nor can one argue that economic activity, which brings livelihoods and incomes, should be foresworn. But there should be more careful and detailed planning before large-scale infrastructure projects are undertaken in these sensitive locations. These are still unstable and shifting terrains, which can be easily disturbed, resulting in frequent landslides and avalanches. Long stretches of the Char Dham highway have been repeatedly affected by landslides, requiring expensive repairs. Several hydroelectric projects on the tributaries of the Ganga have been swept away in sudden storm surges and flash floods, resulting in the loss of lives and property. There is no debris control, with vast piles of earth from these projects simply dumped on the site despite laws requiring their removal. This results in natural drainage being blocked, with waterlogging in the upper reaches and drying up of water channels and natural springs in the lower reaches. One can see this across both Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. Whatever be the immediate benefit, such mindless ravaging of nature will bring eventual retribution and greater deprivation to people. The poorest will suffer the most. And one is not even factoring in the adverse effects of global warming, which is already leading to the accelerated melting of the Himalayan glaciers. We are caught in a vicious cumulative dynamic in which climate change and environmental degradation are reinforcing each other. If we do not heed the warning bells ringing across these divine mountains, the temple bells of Char Dham may soon fall silent.

#Char Dham #Hindus


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