Mahesh Ramola, an employee at a guesthouse in Phata, a small village around 235 km from Dehradun en route to Kedarnath, grew up amid the blissful calm of the verdant hills. Nearing his sunset years now, Ramola, however, fears that the calm may no longer be there for the future generations to rejoice.
“The noisy helicopter services that are in operation in the region have snatched the serenity of our area,” he rues.
Ramola is not alone in his “plight”; many people in the area express similar fears. Though helicopter services for the famed Kedarnath shrine have attracted a horde of high-end pilgrims to Uttarakhand, it has also generated “a lot of noise pollution” in the otherwise quiet valley, say locals.
Serenity of hills disturbed
Residents of locations like Phata, Guptkashi, Sersi and Maikhanda – from where the choppers fly to Kedarnath – are still trying to come to terms with the “monstrous” helicopter noises that drown the calm of their mountains almost every five minutes.
“Children find it difficult to study and the elderly villagers are particularly piqued at the noise. We are trying to get used to it,” said Sarla Devi, a villager. “Perhaps it’s the cost we have to pay for our livelihood. Thank god, helicopters don’t fly in the night,” she added.
The six-month-long pilgrimage to the Char Dham – the four holy Hindu shrines of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri – forms the backbone of the rural economy in the Garhwal region.
Even the tourists seem to feel the pinch. “We came here expecting the mountain quietude, the chirping of birds and gurgling (sound) of the river. Instead, we were welcomed by the roaring chopper noises,” said Prakash Sonkar, a pilgrim from Mumbai.
Pilgrims choose ‘safer’ air route
At present, 13 private helicopter operators have permission to fly in the Kedarnath region, with around 250 to 300 sorties being made every day, said Rudraprayag district magistrate Raghav Langer.
“Helicopters are taking approximately 1400 to 1500 pilgrims to the Himalayan shrine daily, catering to the heavy footfall of pilgrims,” he said.
Kedarnath shrine was the epicentre of the June 2013 flashfloods which left over 5000 dead and thousands displaced. Since then, pilgrims have shown an increased inclination to use the ‘safer’ air route.
Helicopters cut a treacherous foot trek – which spans around 16 km crisscrossing steep mountains and rivulets – to a less-than-10-minute air ride. And the rates have been fixed at `6000 to `7000 per person to and back from the shrine.
No noise pollution norms
Helicopter services in the region have not been untouched by controversy. In August last year, Uttar Pradesh-based environmental organisation Doaba Paryavaran Samiti had filed a plea with the National Green Tribunal (NGT), seeking closure of the helicopter services, alleging they were flying too low, causing noise pollution and affecting the flora and fauna in the Kedarnath region.
In December 2015, the NGT declined to stop the services but asked the Uttarakhand government to issue “specific directions” to the aviation companies in accordance with the aviation policy. The Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII) is currently studying the impact of the helicopter services on the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary.
“It is unfortunate that the noise pollution is still continuing unabated which is affecting the entire ecosystem including the humans and the wildlife,” CV Singh, retired senior scientist and chairman of Doaba Paryavaran Samiti, told HT.
When queried about the extent of noise pollution caused by helicopters in the Kedarnath region, officials of the Uttarakhand Environment Protection and Pollution Control Board said there were “no prescribed norms” for noise pollution in the area.
“The noise pollution standards have been laid down by the government only for industrial, commercial, residential and silence categories with separate noise level limits specified for day and night time,” said UEPPCB member secretary Vinod Singhal.
However, an interim report of the WII said helicopters were generating an average noise level of 70 decibels, some even ranging up to 120 decibels, which is higher than the upper noise limit set down for any of the above four categories.
Aviation companies, on the other hand, sought to play down the matter by denying they were causing any noise pollution in the region. “We are using European/American built helicopters which are highly sophisticated in terms of their machinery. The advanced R&D (research and development) by international experts takes care that minimum possible noise is caused. We are also strictly following the SOP (standard operation procedure) laid down for helicopters in hill areas,” the officer in charge of an aviation company plying in the region told HT on the condition of anonymity.
Balance between tourism and environment
Surendra Kumar, media in charge of chief minister Harish Rawat, said the Uttarakhand government was trying to strike the “right balance between tourism and environment”.
“Char Dham is the mainstay of our economy, so we can’t ignore it (pilgrimage through helicopters). However, at the same time, we are repeatedly issuing directions to the operators to abide by norms so that they cause minimum impact in the Kedarnath region,” Kumar told HT.