This stairway to heaven is breaking: Religious tourism in Uttarakhand
Dehradun: Once a haven for pilgrims, the quiet town of Kedarnath in the northern state of Uttarakhand is now abuzz with the sound of helicopters. Hundreds of tourists are ferried on these helicopters all through the day. On some occasions, as many as 300 sorties are made in one single day.
Uttarakhand, popular for its Hindu pilgrimage sites, attracts spiritual seekers from around the world. Known as Dev Bhoomi (land of Gods), the state, while recovering from the 2013 floods, is now also reeling under the pressure from unregulated tourism and the infrastructure to support it.
The hill state, specifically the Kedarnath Valley, witnessed horrifying destruction in the June 2013 floods. However, that hasn't kept tourists at bay. While there was a slight dip following the tragedy which killed nearly 6,000 people (as per official sources), the number of tourists have picked up again.
In 2018, an unprecedented 30 million tourist arrivals are expected in the state, many of them domestic tourists to the important Hindu pilgrimage circuit of Char Dham in Uttarakhand.
The largely unregulated influx of tourists into the highly disaster-prone state seems to be taking a toll on the fragile ecosystem.
Several reports on the the June 2013 floods stressed the need for regulating tourists coming to Uttarakhand to avoid repeated disasters. But the idea to regulate the high number of tourists and adopt sustainable tourism practices still remains on paper.
Huge tourist influx from India and around the world
According to the draft tourism policy 2017 of the Uttarakhand government, the number of tourists visiting Uttarakhand has consistently increased from around 11 million in 2000 to 28 million in 2012.
Following the 2013 disaster it saw a dip but by 2015 the number was near 25 million. In 2018, it is expected to break all previous records and cross 30 million tourist arrivals - almost three times the population of Uttarakhand itself. By 2026 the number of tourists is expected to touch a whopping figure of 67 million.
The analysis of tourists coming to the hill state also reveals that among the foreign tourists, nearly 58 percent of the visits were for holiday/sightseeing, 21.9 percent for health/yoga and about 19.4 percent for pilgrimage/religious functions.
But among domestic tourists, the main purpose remains pilgrimage as Uttarakhand is home to several pilgrimage sites like Char Dham - Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath - and Hemkund Sahib. The report noted that about 44 percent of the domestic tourist visits were for pilgrimage. Uttarakhand's Char Dham yatra starts in April of each year and ends in November when the temples close for the winter.
The Uttarakhand government also attaches huge importance to the tourism sector as it considers it to be one of the major drivers of economic growth and livelihood for its people. Earlier this year, the government had even given ‘industry' status to the tourism sector, enabling the sector to avail concessions and benefits usually extended to micro, small and medium enterprises.
But environmentalists argue that "greed" has suppressed the "common sense" of the authorities in case of the tourism sector in Uttarakhand.
"Char Dham was considered to be a quiet place where pilgrims used to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere, respect sanctity of environment, maintain silence to meditate but that is no more the case. The government has turned into a highly commercial tourist spot which is unsustainable, loud and has no regard to environment whatsoever. This is no more a pilgrimage and the only focus is on increasing tourists and thus revenue. It is a ruthless exploitation of this area," said Hemant Dhyani, an Uttarakhand based environmentalist.
"The Badrinath temple is of Lord Vishnu and his prayers are considered incomplete until the conch is blown. But our ancestors understood the sanctity of the place and usage of conch was prohibited to maintain the quiet ambience of the area. However, today at Char Dham we see an indiscriminate use of loudspeakers, light and sound shows are being organised and even political programmes are being held. Even if you forget these cultural and traditional sensibilities, how can we forget that there are protected areas adjacent to the Char Dham," he questioned.
"Demonic development of Devbhoomi"
Last year, a "Strategy Paper on Science & Technology intervention for post-disaster reconstruction efforts in Uttarakhand" by the Planning Commission noted that the June 2013 disaster was aggravated due to the unplanned development in the region.
"Various developmental activities pursued over the years could not meet the requirements of the ecology and topology of the region. The huge deforestation, high intensity blasting across the hills, unregulated haphazard construction of houses even in the river terrace region, have led to the destruction of the natural ecosystem and distressed the ecosystem, endangering the local ecology and human life," it noted.
It also calls for a series of regulations on the construction activities and tourism.
The issue of carrying capacity of the hill state has been gaining momentum and also found a mention in the state's draft tourism policy last year. But concrete action is yet awaited. The draft tourism policy advocates for sustainable tourism development principles and adhering to carrying capacity of destinations. This is significant as prominent tourist attractions of Uttarakhand like Nainital and Mussoorie already see more tourists than their carrying capacity every year.
"After the 2013 disaster, the government decided to maintain a biometric database of pilgrims coming to Char Dham. At Kedarnath, they have established local internet facilities and have set up sector magistrate after every few kilometres of the trek. A live camera feed even goes till the Prime Minister's Office in Delhi," said Khushal Singh Rawat, who is with the Uttarakhand administration and currently manages pilgrim records at Sonprayag, the starting point of the Kedarnath trek.
Helicopters fly high in holy Kedarnath
"Before the 2013 tragedy, the average number of pilgrims using helicopter services everyday was around 200-250. But since 2015, the number of people using helicopter services has increased and on average 1,000 people are using helicopters everyday," said Devendra Semwal, who has been working with Heritage Aviation at Kedarnath for the past nine years.
A Wildlife Institute of India (WII) analysis found that helicopter sorties ranged from two to more than 300 per day in the Mandakini Valley and said the upper number should not be exceeded..
As tourists continue to throng Uttarakhand and the infrastructure development continues at a rapid rate, the toll on the natural landscape goes unchecked. Apart from causing environmental issues, this eventually could affect the overall experience of a pilgrim
or a tourist. Under human pressure, the land of Gods may never be the same again.