SONPRAYAG: Regulation of religious tourism and rampant infrastructure development at pilgrim sites in eco-sensitive Himalayan regions in Uttarakhand is being discussed since 2012, but the state government’s failure to draw up a plan in this regard may lead to a major disaster, environmentalists fear.
According to authorities, there has been an exponential increase in the number of pilgrims visiting Kedarnath, with a record 6 lakh-plus visitors so far this year. Pilgrim numbers at other Char Dham sites are also on the rise. The Char Dham pilgrimage sites reported around 20 lakh visitors last year, compared to a little over 14 lakh in 2016 and just 2.8 lakh in 2014.
The number of pilgrims visiting Gaumukh, the origin of Bhagirathi river, has been restricted to 150 a day following a 2008 Uttarakhand High Court order, but the state government is yet to finalise a plan to regulate religious tourism and construction activity along the pristine 100-kilometre stretch of the Bhagirathi from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi as directed by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests in December 2012. The master plan for the Bhagirathi Eco-Sensitive Zone is still being discussed.
Environmentalists feel that there is an urgent need to regulate religious tourism at the Char Dham sites– Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath-- and at Hemkund Sahib, a Sikh pilgrimage site near the Valley of Flowers. The large influx of pilgrims every year to these sites adds to huge plastic and other waste that is difficult to clean for the authorities and flows into the river. This is in addition to the pollution caused by the large number of vehicles.
The routes to these sites pass through the fragile Himalayas and are prone to landslides. Widening of roads and construction activity in the region can disturb the mountain ecology.
“There has been no carrying capacity study done by the state government on how many pilgrims this fragile ecosystem can handle annually. Numbers of visitors are increasing every year and so is the infrastructure, like road and rail connectivity. This is done without bothering that the region is disaster-prone falling in a heavy landslide and seismic zone,” said Hemant Dhyani, who works for an environmental campaign called Ganga Ahvaan.
Ganga Ahvaan, as part of its submission for the master plan for the Bhagirathi Eco-Sensitive Zone, called for lateral tourism rather than linear.
“We suggested a comprehensive plan that included walking paths along the routes and proper waste disposal methods rather than just focusing on roads and parking areas,” said Dhyani.
“Char Dham was a religious pilgrimage and now it is being developed as a tourism spot. This is a highly fragile ecosystem that is being disturbed and polluted,” said Manoj Mishra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan.