The pilgrimage to Badrinath and Kedarnath as also to what is known as “Chaar Dhaam yatra” in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhad has come to a halt on account of heavy incessant rains, both in the Shivaliks and on the Himalayas. Consequently, there have been floods and landslides; the roads are blocked and the pilgrims in thousands are stranded at various places on the way up to the temples of Badrinath and Kedarnath at the elevations of more than 10000 ft. and more than 11500 ft, respectively.
This is the second successive year when bad weather has played havoc with the Badri-Kedar and “Chaar Dham” (Gods’ four abodes) pilgrimages. Despite the massive tragedy that occurred last year the intrepid pilgrims in fairly large numbers ventured out on the difficult and dangerous pilgrimage. Many who were washed away last year in the floods during their journey, from their hotels and guest houses or even the homes that collapsed under the incredible force of waters tumbling down the steep mountainous valleys are still untraceable. The Holy Temples were severely damaged, the river valleys and their banks were ravaged by the gushing waters bringing down debris with the inhabitants of the area losing their houses, sources of livelihood like cultivable lands and cattle and even their bread-winners. The state of Uttarakhand was an absolute wreck, so much so that the devastating floods and attendant havoc were even featured in a documentary in the National Geographic channel.
The major disaster invited the attention of the Supreme Court which suo moto took up the matter and later directed the Ministry of Environment and Forests to appoint an Expert Body to look into the reasons for the deluge that wrecked the state. The Ministry appointed an 11-member committee under Dr. Ravi Chopra, Director of the non-profit People’s Science Institute and Managing Trustee of the Himalayan Foundation. Dr. Chopra’s report was submitted in April last to the Apex Court holding that multiple hydropower projects under construction in the State were largely the cause for the catastrophe. The general consensus among a majority of members of the committee was that there is adequate scientific evidence to prove that multiple hydropower projects in the same river basin aggravated damage to the surroundings. As many as 24 projects were being worked on with dams descending down at various elevations from more than 6000 ft at an interval of a little more than a kilometre.
Dr. Bharat Jhunjhunwala, a scientist and a freelance columnist has reported that the real cause of the disaster was use of dynamite to cut and puncture the hills for making roads and tunnels for hydropower projects. This, coupled with the concomitant deforestation, loosened the topsoil that flowed downward with the heavy downpour instead of allowing the rainwater to seep underground. The sides of the mountains, with trees and shrubs flowed along only to be obstructed by succeeding barrages leading to accumulation of water that formed reservoirs building up pressure to break down obstructions like vital connecting bridges stranding pilgrims. The muck, apparently, a collection of excavated earth for tunnelling and other waste carelessly stacked up on the riversides by companies executing the power projects, was washed away by the gushing waters raising the level of the river beds of Mandakini and Alaknanda causing floods and devastation to the roads and habitations alike on both banks. Dr. Jhunjhunwala also feels that there is overwhelming evidence to show that the disaster was caused by human activities, especially hydropower projects. The Chopra Committee has reportedly recommended axing of 23 out of 24 power projects in the area.
The other human activity that of unregulated tourism, made no mean contribution towards the disaster last year. A report said that, according to the state government records, the numbers of pilgrims have registered a 300% rise during the last decade of 2001 to 2011. From 1.11 crore (1billion) it has risen to 3.11crore (3 billion) and was expected to double by 2017. The infrastructure to cater to the rising numbers has developed but only very tardily, and as is the wont of the governments, in an unregulated manner. Roads were widened cutting the hill-sides to allow for the exponentially risen traffic. Necessarily, large tracts of forests had to be felled with the same eventuality as occurred for building of hydropower projects. According to another news report, “Construction on the pilgrim route grew organically and with successive state governments providing limited public infrastructure, people in the region built up (mostly illegally) the cheapest and quickest motels, restaurants and roadside kiosks to benefit from the growing number of tourists.” Apparently, the government of the state ignored the findings of its own studies and continues to do so, drawing hardly any lessons from the tragedy.
If the floods, landslides and breaches took place because of the hydropower projects the immense loss of life was caused by the unregulated tourism. No wonder, the state government was paralysed and later the chief minister lost his job. But he could have done precious little as it was a man-made calamity of massive proportions for which, despite being in possession of adequate information, his government was caught totally unprepared. It was only other agencies such as the men of the defence forces, NGOs and other social organizations that helped in rescue and recovery of men and material.
The local inhabitants displaced from their moorings, in many cases, are yet to be rehabilitated.
And, yet earlier this year the government was ready with the plans of commencing the “Yatra” (pilgrimage). It could not possibly have waited as religious tourism has remained for many years the mainstay for the wellbeing of the people in the “spiritually rich state”. The economy of the state seemingly was heavily dependent on the influx of pilgrims during the annual pilgrimage. Curbing or restricting the tourist traffic is a political hot potato which no political party is prepared to enforce. After all, politicians’ votes are directly dependent on it. So, the more the number of pilgrims, happier the people of the state would be – regardless of the prospects of deaths and devastation.
Chasing the hydropower potential of 14-odd GW and allowing unrestrained tourism that let in hordes of neo-rich, the Uttarakhand government, treading the dangerous path of self destruction, unwittingly mounted an unsustainable assault on the young mountains. Beckoned by the prospects of prosperity and unending flow of votes, the politicians became oblivious of the power of Nature and that it could strike back, as it did in the summer of 2013.
Being the “Spiritually Rich State”, its keepers should realise that the Gods are angry for the scarring, denudation and mutilation of their creation, the Himalayas, and that they are fed up with mostly the faux piety of the hordes of neo-rich. The message seems to be clear and needs to be heeded: Gods desire peace and tranquillity to once again rein in their lofty abodes. Restraint should be the watchword for us mortals.