It is only six hours away from Delhi, has spectacular scenery and a salubrious climate. All the right ingredients to make it a popular tourist destination. And a sought-after pilgrimage site set as it is near the abode of the gods in the Himalayas.
But popularity often comes at a huge price and Uttarakhand is paying a very heavy one for its natural attractions. As with all such gorgeous natural locales in India, the influx of tourists and pilgrims virtually amounts to a tidal wave in season. With this comes the pressure to build by hook or by crook, mostly by crook, to accommodate this traffic.
You must have seen the apocalyptic pictures of hotels and homes crumbling like helpless rag dolls into the furious river waters. You must have seen the hillsides cave in and come hurtling down bringing death and destruction in their trail. The cloudburst, I agree, was unexpected and the monsoon came too early.
But nothing explains the level of destruction as much as the enormous pressure put on the area by sheer volumes of people and the inordinate greed to flout the law and make many many quick bucks.
The state’s economy may be dependent on tourism. But this does not mean that you adopt a ‘come one, come all, this is Liberty Hall’ policy. Kerala is one of the most sought after tourist destinations on the planet. Yet the government is careful about admitting only certain categories of tourists — the high spenders mostly — into the state.
You may call this venal and elitist but the state would not be able to take a giant volume of tourist traffic given its fragile coast line and waterways.
If the Uttarakhand government had done its homework, perhaps it could have put into place a plan which could have minimised this tragedy. Even though there is no reliable data on the state’s tourist traffic, which in itself is a bit strange, the Uttarakhand State Transport Department’s records show that there has been a huge rise in the number of tourist vehicles in the state: in 2005-06, 83,000-odd vehicles were registered in the state. In 2012-13, it touched 180,000.
Out of this, a Down to Earth report says, the proportion of cars, jeeps and taxis, the most preferred means of transport for tourists, increased the most. In 2005-06, 4,000 such vehicles were registered, which jumped to 40,000 in 2012-13. Now add to this the number of private cars that enter the state every day, carrying on an average at least four people in one vehicle.
I read a report in the Hindustan Times, citing the Right to Information data which showed that Badrinath and Kedarnath have witnessed almost a four-fold increase in visitors in a decade, accompanied by a rise in packages offered by tour operators.
Uttarakhand’s Char Dham circuit, like the Amarnath Yatra in J&K, is the state tourism department’s top draw. There are many similarities between the two yatras: the shrines are at similar altitudes and have similar geographical hazards. Yet no one in Uttarakhand seems to have read the 1996 Nitish Sengupta panel report after floods and landslides killed 243 Amarnath Yatra pilgrims.
The recommendations of the report included limiting the number of pilgrims, introducing an age cap since the yatra route is tough, restricting the yatra period to one month only and the number of pilgrims up to one lakh per year.
If you don’t remember it, I don’t blame you.
The authorities don’t either. As always, it is after the horse has bolted and has been lost in the avalanche that such reports are discussed. I say discussed because there the matter will end. When it comes to implementation, even such a gargantuan tragedy is not likely to result in systems being put in place.
As of now, the official cap on the number of pilgrims to Amarnath is 8,000 per day, but it is often flouted. According to an NDTV report, even medically unfit people are allowed to do the Amarnath trek. While in Amarnath, there is a statutory prohibition on building permanent structures, in Uttarakhand hundreds of permanent structures, like lodges and restaurants, have been constructed flouting all norms. There is no age restriction for the Char Dham Yatra, a strenuous pilgrimage even for the fittest.
In fact, the Uttarakhand government should use the Vaishno Devi system — almost 20,000-30,000 pilgrims per day — as a template for controlled religious tourism: no unregistered pilgrim is allowed to go on the trek. Or take a leaf out of the southern pilgrimage sites. You can’t get much bigger than Tirupati, but the whole thing is done in an orderly manner.
The gains from religious and other tourism are enormous.
But if it means such huge devastation that will set the state back by several years, not to mention the human cost, then is it worth it? It is much better to keep the numbers down, ensure strict building laws and dig in for the long term. But I wonder if I will be writing about how well things are being managed this time next year. If I were you, I wouldn’t hold my breath on this one.