India Insight

More pilgrims mean more trouble for shrines in north India

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.

Rhino attacked, tiger killed as floods ravage Northeast

Northeast India is home to several rare and endangered animal species, which means that Northeast India is also home to poachers. With floods ravaging Assam and other northeastern states and displacing some 2 million people, poachers appear to be using the opportunity to murder animals.

Suspected poachers attacked a rare one-horned rhino by shooting it and cutting off its horn, the BBC reported:

The rhino was wounded when shot and had its horn cut off after it wandered out of Kaziranga national park, which has been inundated by flood waters. … The rhino was one of many animals that moved to higher ground to escape the deluge. Guards lost track of it as it approached an elevated highway out of the park, Assam’s Chief Wildlife Warden Suresh Chand told the Associated Press news agency. The rhino was then shot by a group of poachers who afterwards cut off its horn, Mr. Chand said.

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Pakistan, India and the value of democracy

gilani kayaniOf the many comments I heard in Pakistan, one question particularly flummoxed me. Was democracy really the right system for South Asia?  It came, unsurprisingly, from someone sympathetic to the military, and was couched in a comparison between Pakistan and India.

What had India achieved, he asked, with its long years of near-uninterrupted democracy, to reduce the gap between rich and poor?  What of the Maoist rebellion eating away at its heartland? Its desperate poverty? The human rights abuses from Kashmir to Manipur, when Indian forces were called in to quell separatist revolts? Maybe, he said, democracy was just not suited to countries like India and Pakistan.

The question surprised me, in part because I had never really been forced before to defend democracy, possibly because in the West we take it so much for granted that we have forgotten why it matters. It also surprised me for the sheer conviction of the sentiment.

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