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.

Death toll in Uttarakhand monsoon floods crosses 150

Thousands stranded in parts of northern India awaited rescuers on Wednesday as floods caused by heavier-than-usual monsoon rains killed at least 150 people in worst-hit Uttarakhand.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a 10-billion-rupee aid package for the state after he and Congress president Sonia Gandhi did an aerial survey of the flood-hit region.

“The government will not spare any effort in rescue and relief operations,” Singh said on his official Twitter account, adding the large-scale devastation they witnessed was “most distressing”.

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