Hindustan Times (Jalandhar)
Char Dham ascent beset by myriad problems as numbers soar
RUDRAPRAYAG/CHAMOLI: It was not how Hansa Behen, an elderly pilgrim had imagined it would be. Over a week ago, Behen left her home in Gujarat, and arrived at Sonprayag, 20 kilometres away from her destination — Kedarnath, a pilgrimage she had planned for over a year. Yet, when Behen arrived at Gaurikund on April 25, the gateway to the shrine, she was stymied by inclement weather, and chaos from a sea of unregulated visitors — pandemonium that forced her to return without reaching her final destination. “We were stopped and not allowed to move ahead as the weather is bad in the higher reaches. And the crowd is maddening. It would be difficult to have a darshan, so we decided to return. I am saddened but there is little that can be done,” she said.
Hansa Behen is not alone in her disappointment.
Ever since the Uttarakhand government opened the routes to Kedarnath on April 25, the Char Dham Yatra has been beset by problems. Glaciers along the route broke off on May 3 and 4, and every day, videos abound of pilgrims walking through sheets of ice, leading to accidents. On May 3, the SDRF had to rescue four Nepalese citizens who were trapped when a portion of the glacier fell, and two days later, a landslide near Helang blocked the Joshimath-Badrinath route. Last Friday, pilgrims had a narrow escape when rocks began falling on the Yamunotri Highway.
But even those that have made the gateways to Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri have had to deal with a deluge of people who have inundated the shrines, forcing long queues and people to return. The crowds and the traffic could leave the ecologically fragile mountains open to another disaster that could risk lives. On May 8, the Uttarakhand government suspended registration for the Yatra till May 15 citing the heavy rush of pilgrims. Till May 8, close to 500,000 pilgrims had already visited the shrines, compared to the 4.4 million from the middle of April to November 2022.
The mad rush
Sonprayag, a small town of 5,000 residents, is the last resting area before Kedarnath. It is the place where pilgrims must park their vehicles and use a shuttle service to go onwards to Gauri Kund, from where the 16 kilometre trek to the Kedarnath Dham commences. But even on April 25, the day the shrines opened, HT found the multi storeyed parking lot in Sonprayag, and another authorized spot in Sitapur full to capacity, and a long snaking queue of vehicles jamming the mountain roads.
Mahipal Sindhal, a pilgrim from Rajasthan, got off his vehicle and walked a kilometre to reach Sonprayag. “We were first asked to get down from our vehicles and walk to Sonprayag. Then we were told only those that have advance hotel bookings can go to Gaurikund, something that wasn’t communicated earlier. We waited for many hours and finally decided to return,” Sindhal said.
Even as the Uttarakhand government has allowed online registration of pilgrims, one family from Haryana said that they took advantage of lax checking to reach Sonprayag. “When we were traveling up, nobody was checking, so we kept going. There are few policemen and so many vehicles. They can’t check every single one,” a member of the family said.
Then there are others like Ravi Kumar from Delhi., that braved the traffic jams, and the queues, and the faulty registration process to find himself at the gates of “Kedar Devta”, only to be stymied at the last hurdle. “I stood in queue for four hours at the gate of the temple. It was freezing and the lines just did not move. I folded my hands towards the shrine and returned without a darshan I had dreamed of,” Kumar said.
Inderpal Chauhan, from Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, who has braved the trek to Kedarnath for the past 30 years, reminisced about a time when the call to faith was not quite so troublesome. Government data shows that in the year 2000, 1.2 million people visited the four shrines, close to quadrupling in 2022 where they received 4.4 million visitors. “Even till 2015, on the first day, there were about a hundred pilgrims . It was a day you could be at peace with the deity. This year, for the first time, I had to return without a sighting. There must have been 15,000 people milling about,” Chauhan said.
Health and pollution
Officials admit that with the unregulated deluge of people , they are struggling to disseminate any medical guidance for pilgrims visiting high altitudes, with most rushing to the shrines without any acclimatisation. Dr Vinta Shah, director general health, said that around 300 doctors have been deputed on Char Dham routes and over 60,000 pilgrims have been screened. But Dr Ajay Khanna, general secretary of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) Uttarakhand chapter said the main problem was the rush of people. “Because of the numbers, people are going up without acclimatising to the altitudes. Elderly people should not rush to shrines, They should take regular breaks and stay hydrated,” he said.
In 2022, around 300 pilgrims died during the Char Dham yatra, of which 135 died in Kedar valley. Over 240 of these deaths were due to cardiac arrest and the exacerbation of existing health ailments during the arduous trek, while the rest were due to accidents, senior Uttarakhand officials said. This year, 10 deaths have been reported, officials said.
Along the routes to both Kedarnath and Badrinath, HT found plastic bottles and wrappers strewn along the roads and slopes, most sliding downwards into the Alaknanda, Bhagirathi and Ganga rivers. Small towns like Sonprayag, with little solid waste management processes, have mountains of garbage on the hill slopes and on empty patches of land.
Navneet Pandey, director of the state urban development department, said the government has started a refunds programme, under which pilgrims are required to submit an additional ₹10 while purchasing water bottles, which is refunded when the bottle is returned.
“If some pilgrims are throwing bottles, someone else will take the bottle and get the refund. The change won’t happen overnight, but we are taking continuous efforts to cut plastic waste,” he said.
Anoop Nautiyal, founder of Dehradun based SDC Foundation, that deals with issues of pollution and environmental degradation said, “With a huge influx of pilgrims, the lack of waste segregation, disposal of water bottles, sachets, empty glass bottles and the collection, transportation, and processing of waste are key concerns. If five million pilgrims come for Char Dham Yatra this year, spend on average 10 days and only 50% buy three water bottles/ day, 75 million plastic bottles will be sold in six months”.
Pilgrims and drivers also expressed concerns on the condition of the Char Dham all-weather road in several parts of the state including in Rudraprayag and Chamoli districts, where the Kedarnath and Badrinath shrines are located. On both roads, there was construction debris or fallen rocks on the roads, creating traffic bottlenecks, allowing only one vehicle to pass at a time. Side railings and crash barriers, essential for driving safety in the hills, have been buried under debris, and in some stretches, like near Joshimath, a part of the road has caved in, effectively narrowing the width of the passage.
This reporter found the condition of the roads especially precarious between Guptkashi and Sonprayag on the Kedarnath route and between Joshimath and Badrinath, with vertical hill cutting making the stretches vulnerable. Ayush Sharma, a driver who has been plying the Char Dham routes for over a decade, said this stretch has become the most dangerous drive. “There are many points in Rudraprayag and Chamoli, where only one vehicle can pass at a time. This slows traffic movement and creates regular traffic jams. But due to hill cutting, landslides have become frequent on these routes, especially when there is rain,” he said.
Environmentalist Mallika Bhanot, who works with Ganga Ahvaan, said, “When you have to expand the road for 12 metres, you have to cut for 24 metres for right of way (ROY). There are many stretches, where they have to cut vertically, which makes the slopes unstable and prone to landslides. The government has itself admitted before the Supreme Court that 280 to 290 new landslide zones have been created on Char Dham all-weather road.”
A note submitted by Centre before the Supreme Court in November 2021 mentions 125 vulnerable locations with respect to landslides on the Char Dham allweather road, including 14 on the Rishikesh-Rudraprayag stretch, 44 on Rishikesh-Dharasu, three on Dharasu-Gangotri, four on Dharasu-Yamunotri, nine on Rudraprayag-Gaurikund and 51 on Tanakpur-Pithoragarh.
Lessons not learnt
Experts say that it is clear that the load of pilgrims in the Himalayan valleys that contain the Char Dham shrines, all above 10,000 feet and all vulnerable to sudden changes in weather, makes the area increasingly susceptible to the kind of tragedies that have already been seen in Kedarnath in 2013, where nearly 5000 people were killed, and in Chamoli in 2021, when a glacial burst claimed 204 lives.
Atul Sati, leader of Joshimath Bachao Sangarash Samiti, said, “There were around above 20,000 people in Kedar Valley when the tragedy happened in 2013. Disasters like cloud bursts, landslides, glacial lake outbursts, flash floods, and earthquakes will keep happening in these vulnerable Himalayan areas. The government should have demarcated the carrying capacity of the Char Dham shrines and put a daily cap on the numbers.”
In fact, the Uttarakhand government had instituted a daily pilgrim cap for pilgrims, before revoking the order on April 21 on the instructions of Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami. But this cap faced staunch resistance from hoteliers, resort owners, travel and tour operators, who even warned of launching an agitation if the restriction on daily numbers was not removed. Under the rules in place till that date, the daily cap for Yamunotri was 500 pilgrims, for Gangotri 9,000, for Badrinath 15,000 and for Kedarnath 18,000.
Hemant Dhyani, an environmentalist and member of the Supreme Court-appointed High Powered Committee (HPC) on the Char Dham Project said, “We had suggested the daily limiting of pilgrims in Char Dham shrines to 5,000 per day in Kedarnath, Badrinath about 6,000, Yamunotri 3,500 and Gangotri around 4,000. The government’s insistence on an unrestricted yatra is a recipe for disaster because it puts additional pressure on available resources and harms the ecology beyond repair. There needs to be a specific study on the ecological carrying capacity in the Himalayan valley that factors in soil bearing capacity, pressure on natural resources protection of the hill slopes, air pollution and impact on the nearby glaciers, and only after this should pilgrims be allowed.”