Weeks before Chardham Yatra, tender for chopper services yet to open
Earlier, there were 14 private and four government operators of helicopter services in the valley for Kedarnath and Badrinath pilgrimages. But after the previous state government order was revoked, the number increased to 18, indicating alleged illegal construction of four new helipads.Updated: Apr 29, 2019 18:32 IST
With less than two weeks left for the Chardham yatra to begin in Uttarakhand, tendering process for operation of chopper service in Mandakini valley, for Kedarnath and Badrinath pilgrimages, has still not started after the state high court put a stay on it last month till further orders.
In February, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Uttarakhand Civil Aviation Development Authority (UCADA) issued an order which revokes a previous state government’s order on restriction of building new helipads in Mandakini valley. Earlier, there were 14 private and four government operators of helicopter services in the valley for Kedarnath and Badrinath pilgrimages. But after the order was revoked, the number increased to 18, indicating alleged illegal construction of four new helipads.
The counsel of the petitioner who had filed the case informed that the petition challenged the ‘sort of backdoor entry of the four new helipads’ in the valley.
In June 2016, the previous government had issued an order that barred construction of new helipads in the Mandakini valley, which had 14 helipads at that time. The UCADA’s recent order reversed that decision, days before the release of tenders for starting chopper shuttle services for Kedarnath yatra. The tender for starting chopper shuttle services for this year’s Kedarnath yatra was uploaded on the official website on February 26.
In April 2017, the then district magistrate of Rudraprayag had received complaints about illegal construction of a helipad near Badasu region. The district magistrate, in a letter written to the sub-divisional magistrate of Ukhimath in May 2017, had ordered to take action against the illegal construction and stop the helipad work.
Now, with two weeks left for the portals of the Chardham shrines to open, officials are getting maximum queries by pilgrims regarding the operation of the heli-services. Official figures show that in 2018, around 1.25 lakh pilgrims used the chopper services for the Chardham yatra.
The High Court heard the case again on Wednesday (April 24) but reserved the order.
A senior official from UCADA, requesting anonymity said, “The moment we get a go ahead from the court, we will start the tendering process and finalise the participants. Before the matter reached the court, we were ready with all the formalities and as it will be an e-tender process, it will not take a lot of time and services will start as per schedule.”
The official explained that the tenders have been submitted online and now UCADA just has to work on the technical bit and once the tenders are opened, the flying locations, hours and cost will be decided. According to rules, only six choppers can fly at a time.
In 2017, Dehradun based Wildlife Institute of India in a report had brought to light that choppers to the Kedarnath shrine, which fly above the sensitive Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary were being flown by heli-companies below the set height of 600m from ground to make more sorties. The noise from the low flying choppers increase stress levels in animals, disturb their hormonal balance and lead them to shift from the forest zone. The Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary is home to rare and endangered species like the Musk Deer and Himalayan Tahr.
In October 2018, a similar report was sent by the divisional forest officer of Kedarnath to the state forest department raising alarm about choppers violating aviation norms. This report also mentioned that as per norms set by National Green Tribunal, helicopter companies are required to send altimeter data to DFO Kedarnath bi-weekly but the data was not sent regularly and some companies did not send the data at all.
Meanwhile, ahead of the yatra season, Satpal Maharaj, tourism minister in the state said that the government will take up this matter in the next meeting. “We are also trying to focus on how to facilitate the arrival of foreign tourists for the Chardham yatra,” the minister said.