Pilgrims stranded in Kedarnath as Uttarakhand cracks down on chopper services
Helicopter companies had ignored the government’s notices about declaring their flying coordinates following allegations that low flying choppers were harming the fragile ecology of the region.dehradun Updated: Sep 12, 2017 21:14 IST
The Uttarakhand Civil Aviation Development Authority (UCADA) Tuesday suspended the helicopter services in the Kedarnath valley over non-compliance of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) directions on height and level of noise that the choppers generate.
Hundreds of pilgrims were stranded at Kedarnath and nearby areas in Rudrprayag district as UCADA ordered all the nine operators to ground their helicopters. A large number of pilgrims, intending to avoid the 16-km trek to the Kedarnath shrine, opt for the chopper services.
The move comes after the operators failed to respond to several notices that the UCADA issued to the helicopter operators in last two months asking them to submit a detailed compliance report on “flying choppers above 2000 ft (600 m) from the ground level” in consonance with the NGT’s directive.
“We sent several notices to these companies, but none replied. They have to submit the coordinates of choppers mentioning whether or not they are flying above 2000 feet as directed by the NGT. So, we asked for suspending the services for one day,” R Rajesh Kumar, additional secretary, civil aviation department, told Hindustan Times.
After suspending the chopper services, the UCADA, in the afternoon, held a meeting with the operators. Eight of the nine aviation companies are functional.
The suspension spurred the eight aviation companies to submit their reports which were scrutinized by chief engineer UCADA, G Seetaiah. After the scrutiny, the UCADA decided late Tuesday evening to allow eight choppers of the eight aviation companies positioned at Guptkashi, Phata and Sersi helipads to resume services from Wednesday morning.
The eco-sensitive Kedarnath valley is home to a wide range of flora and fauna. In a report that Wildlife Institute of India (WII) submitted to NGT after conducting study, it was found that the operators were flying the choppers at low altitude – sometimes as low as 150 metres (500 ft approx) from ground level – to cut short the trip time and save fuel. This, in turn, leads to high noise pollution with choppers generating up to 80 decibels of sound. The study was conducted after a PIL was filed before the green tribunal seeking to put in place an aviation policy in the eco-sensitive zones such as the Kedarnath valley. Officers from Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) also visited the valley after the portals were opened for tourists on May 3.
Pilgrims, however, had to bear the brunt of the suspension of helicopter services on Tuesday. Kedarnath MLA Manoj Rawat, who was in Delhi, said, “I received calls from many tourists who were seeking help because of the suspension of the choppers services. Many told me that they have come with their elderly parents or grandparents and are now stranded.”
Mangesh Ghildiyal, district magistrate (DM), Rudraprayag, claimed that the situation was under control. “We came to know about suspension of flights in morning. There are facilities at various points for tourists. We were told the suspension would be for one day and we will send the pilgrims to the shrine on Wednesday morning.”
In 2013, Kedarnath had faced massive flashfloods claiming lives of over 5000 people. Following the natural calamity, the chopper service was launched for safe travel of pilgrims.