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Uttarakhand beset by Char Dham Yatra chaos, forest fires

The hill state is facing the double whammy of environmental disasters and climate change.

Uttarakhand beset by Char Dham Yatra chaos, forest fires

LAPSE: The Uttarakhand Government is responsible for the gross mishandling of the Char Dham Yatra. PTI



Rashme Sehgal

Senior Journalist

THE Uttarakhand Government led by Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami is responsible for plunging the state into one disaster after another. The most recent example is the gross mishandling of the high-profile Char Dham Yatra, considered a big money-spinner. It was inaugurated on May 10, and within its first 14 days has left over 45 pilgrims dead and many injured.

In 2023, the yatra resulted in the death of over 200 pilgrims due to high-altitude sickness, landslides, etc. The administration had a good six months to prepare for the 2024 event since the doors of the four shrines were closed in early November. They could have used this time to introduce basic safety measures such as widening the pathways leading up to the shrines, ensuring basic health facilities and preparing a roadmap for the smooth flow of traffic.

Instead, on the first day itself at the Yamunotri shrine, with a carrying capacity of around 4,500 people, there were about 45,000 tourists awaiting their turn on a narrow, unsafe pathway, holding on for dear life to a rickety bamboo railing where one false step would have seen them plunging down a deep crevice. The traffic jam to get to Yamunotri was 45 km long and yatris complained that they had to wait 10-12 hours for darshan.

The picture was no different in Kedarnath, which on the first day saw a crowd of nearly 80,000 yatris making their way up to the shrine, only to be met by heavy snow and rain; hotels were charging astronomical amounts, which the majority could ill afford. The story in Badrinath was equally chaotic. Pilgrims braved the cold to stand in long queues from 2 am, and when the temple door’s finally opened, priority was given to VIP darshan. This so incensed the yatris that they broke into protests and anti-government sloganeering.

With social media flooded with videos of serpentine queues and angry devotees, the state government threatened to take legal action against those spreading fake news or videos to defame the yatra.

Local residents have taken to social media, demanding that the administration regulate the flow of pilgrims and vehicles entering Uttarakhand as the present revenue-driven model was creating fresh environmental challenges. Garbage disposal has emerged as one of the biggest challenges since most of this waste ends up polluting the rivers that originate from the higher Himalayas.

The yatra was preceded by forest fires, which burnt down vast tracts of deciduous and oak forests. Forest fires had started simmering across the state in November 2023. Lack of winter rain and the dry summer spell have seen them spread to practically every forest-covered district from Pauri Garhwal to the Kedarnath and Badrinath valleys to the Kumaon hills, including Nainital, Bhowali and Haldwani, across Bhimtal and Sattal right up to Munsiyari, which lies on the Nepal border. The fire-induced haze was so thick that it led to the cancellation of flights to the Naini-Saini airport in Pithoragarh.

According to satellite pictures, and confirmed by the Forest Survey of India, 40 per cent of Uttarakhand’s once-dense forests have been burnt to cinders and yet we have a state government informing the Supreme Court that only 0.1 per cent of the forest cover has been affected. It was only when these fires reached Nainital that the Indian Air Force was asked to step in and assist in putting out these fires. Dhami and Forest Minister Subodh Uniyal returned to the state after election campaigning in Telangana and Karnataka when senior bureaucrats received a rap on their knuckles from the Supreme Court.

These fires have dried up thousands of springs, which are the only source of drinking water for the local people and have converted this once-beautiful state into a veritable gas chamber, which is impacting the health of its people. The young and elderly are complaining of irritation in the eyes and are being admitted to hospital because they are facing difficulty in breathing.

But the most shocking part of this saga is that the entire burden of controlling these fires has fallen on the shoulders of the understaffed and ill-equipped foresters, who are working 10 to 12 hours at a stretch, armed with little more than garden rakes and tree branches to control these fires that are racing across the mountain slopes, devouring everything in their path.

In a clear violation of an apex court order, the state government managed to secure permission from the Environment Ministry to do mining in its rivers as well as earn enormous profits from the sale of dug-up minerals, sands and stones. The rivers are drying up due to deforestation, excessive mining and pollution. During the summer months, they are little more than glorified nullahs. But the mining pits dug in these rivers are so deep that several people have drowned in them.

In February last year, the CM went to New Delhi to meet Environment Minister Bhupendra Yadav in order to get permission to continue mining in four rivers (Kosi, Gaula, Sarda and Nandaur) for 10 years. After his meeting with Yadav, he wrote on social media: “Under the leadership of the double-engine government, we are always working towards the development and prosperity of the region.”

Unfortunately, Uttarakhand is facing the double whammy of climate change and unprecedented environmental disasters.

#Char Dham #Climate change #Environment #Hindus #Uttarakhand


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