Debashish Bhattacharya, a retired banker from Kolkata, is enjoying a “candle light dinner” with his family at one of the tiny restaurants that dot the narrow road up to the Gangotri shrine in Uttarkashi district, about 300 km northeast of Dehradun.
The “romantic” lighting option, unlike the city restaurants, is not a luxury but the only option in the holy town, up in the Garhwal Mountains where electricity is as elusive as the sun that plays hide and seek amidst the clouds against the azure blue Himalayan sky.
“I’m shocked at seeing this...I hadn’t thought we’d have to face such trouble at this easily accessible hill town. We have not even been able to charge the batteries of our cameras,” said Bhattacharya.
Erratic electricity supply in the higher reaches of the state, especially the famous Chardham shrines, mirrors the apathy of the state government, which claims to be promoting tourism and pilgrimage on the shrine circuit in a big way, after the 2013 flash floods.
Gangotri - the seat of Goddess Ganga and the last road head to the river’s glacial origin, about 18 km uphill at Gomukh – is in darkness on most nights due to erratic electricity supply.
Erratic and inadequate power supplies have forced local hotel owners to use generators for running their businesses. “A big chunk of whatever little profits we get goes into running the generators. Without that, there’s no way to attract the tourists,” said Rai Singh Panwar, a restaurant owner.
Residents said that the power supply is erratic even in the peak pilgrimage season during the summer months, which was not only impacting the town’s hotel industry but also adding pollution to the serene hill environment.
Even when electricity is available, the voltage is low, some of them said. “At least 100 to150 litre of fuel is required every month to run the generators. It is an additional monetary burden on us,” said Rajendra Rana, a hotel manager.
Though Rana is aware of the air pollution caused by the generators, he said most hotel owners “had no other choice” as the pilgrims and tourists prefer to stay in neighboring hotels which are relatively bigger and provide uninterrupted power.
Sporadic power supply, bad road connectivity and weak telecommunication network have added to the problems of the residents, who say that recharging their mobile phones, and running other electrical appliances and gadgets is a big problem.
Last month, Ashish Semwal, a priest at the Gangotri shrine, got to know about a relative’s death only after two days. “There was no battery in my mobile. I couldn’t reach for my tauji’s (uncle’s) funeral on time,” he said.
At the root of the problem is the poor functioning of the Uttarakhand Renewable Energy Development Agency’s hydro power project at Rudragaira near the holy town, said head priest and chairman of the temple committee Bhageshwar Semwal.
“Gangotri town, which is the pride of the Himalayas, often plunges into darkness. It’s a serious problem and something should be done about it immediately and the government should look into solving the power woes of the town,” he told Hindustan Times.
“There are a few solar-powered streetlights but that’s not enough.”
The holy portal of the Gangotri shrine was opened on April 21 and is scheduled to close on November 12, a day after Diwali.