India Insight

More pilgrims mean more trouble for shrines in north India

June 28, 2013

Nestled in the Himalayas, Uttarakhand attracts increasing numbers of visitors every year. Between 2001 and 2010, the number of visitors to the state rose nearly 200 percent to 30.3 million. With major Hindu shrines located in the state, about 70 percent of the tourists who visit the state visit religious sites. That is a worrying sign for ecologically fragile areas such as Kedarnath – a small temple town located 3,583 metres (11,755 feet) above sea level and almost entirely washed out in recent flash floods.

The rush to the Himalayas has been accompanied by a haphazard pattern of growth that might not be sustainable. A study by infrastructure group IL&FS IDC Ltd showed that the carrying capacities – maximum number of persons an environment can support — of various tourist centres in Uttarakhand reached saturation levels in 2010.

It is in this context that some environmentalists have been calling the devastating floods a man-made catastrophe. “Ecological fragility sets limits. Today these limits are being violated … and the pilgrimage to the Char Dhams is being turned into crass consumerist mass tourism,” said activist Vandana Shiva in an email conversation with me. (To see pictures from the flood crisis, click here)

A booming economy, young population and better infrastructure led to about 900 million visits to various domestic destinations, including to another Himalayan shrine, the Amarnath cave, in 2012. Located in a narrow gauge in Kashmir, this snow-covered shrine attracted more than 600,000 Hindu pilgrims last year, up more than 30 percent from 2010.

This year, the tour operators in the state expect even more pilgrims, though the board overseeing the pilgrimage arrangements refuses to put a number to the expected rush. “Number (of pilgrims) is fixed – 7500 per day, per route (there are two routes to the cave),” NK Choudhary, CEO of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board told me in a telephone interview.

Regardless of controls and assurances by Choudhary that debris and human waste will be taken care of, groups in Kashmir valley have been demanding that the number of days in the 55-day pilgrimage time be slashed. Among the facilities are not just roads but even helicopter services.

“A glacier is subzero, but thousands of people emit radiation at 37 degrees Celsius, whether it is yatri [pilgrims] or anybody,” Dr. Shakeel Ahmad Romshoo, head of the Earth Sciences Department at University of Kashmir, told the National Geographic earlier this year. “Start a helicopter and there is a big radiation and temperatures rise. So, definitely that encourages the melting of snow and glacier resources in the region,” he said.

Rauf Tramboo, chief of Travel Agents Association of Kashmir said that the road from Badrinath to Joshimath “was not a wise idea as then you can take the vehicle right up to the temple there.” This was another shrine that the floods hit. Environmentalists say that any ecological imbalance in Himalayan regions can lead to floods and landslides.

VK Raina, former deputy director general of the Geological Survey of India, thinks that restricting the number of visitors is neither possible nor desirable. The scientist who famously disputed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s claims in 2009 that the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035 would rather have better engineering in the hilly areas. “Why don’t these rich shrine boards or authorities have modern weather prediction systems?” he asked.

Saving lives during a crisis like in Uttarakhand then comes down to the government sticking with sustainable tourism – an idea that it clearly has not yet bought. Revenue inflows after all cannot be ignored. A study by the PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry suggests tourism contributed up to 30 percent to Uttarakhand’s  GDP in recent years.

Rajiv Bhartari, an Indian Forest officer engaged in developing eco-tourism in Uttarakhand, has learned from working at the Jim Corbett National Park in the state that sustainable tourism can earn governments more revenue. “There are three things you can control: tourist numbers, tourist behaviour and tourism development … Regulation of all these is required.” Choudhary, the Amarnath board chief, also expects pilgrims to cooperate on environmentally friendly practices such as not using plastic bags on the route.

(You can follow Shashank on Twitter @shashankchouhan)

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