My days of late, have been very depressing. I am haunted by images of hovering helicopters, surging waters, smashed buildings/bridges and ominous weather reports. I imagine myself stranded up on a hill for days together, shivering in the cold and waiting for someone to rescue me. And then, I wonder about the “fruit of pilgrimage” for those people who are there even now under similar circumstances.
Yes, I am talking about the Uttarakhand tragedy!
It is ironic that an ecological disaster like this should strike the land that was home to the Chipko movement in the 1970s. Chipko, literally meaning ‘to stick on to” was a peaceful protest started by a group of peasant women in the Chamoli district of Uttarkhand. The women hugged trees to prevent them from being felled by the contractors who had permits from the Forest Department. Their aim was to protect their traditional forest rights. It gave impetus to large scale grassroot movements on livelihood and environment protection across the country.
After the freedom struggle, this has been one of the movements that has given me a lot of inspiration and pride. Later on , I had the opportunity to meet Shri Chandi Prasad Bhatt one of the leaders of this conservation movement. The few hours that I spent talking to him were enough to make me want to visit his land. However , when I did go there in 2009, I was horrified! I saw quarried hills, barren slopes and buildings straggling along on hill slopes ready to drop down at the slightest movement of the rocks below.
When I see the debates on television about the “development” needs of this fragile ecological zone, I feel very conflicted. On one hand are the infrastructural needs of the place and on the other hand are the conservation needs. Those ladies who hugged the trees were obviously of a different generation whose aspirations were different. Today’s youth up in the hills are looking at something different.
Not surprising, that development of infrastructure in the region seems to be the most important agenda of the state government. After all hadn’t their demand for a separate state been on the grounds that the ‘development needs” of the hills were different? And they seem hell bent on fulfilling these “needs” even if it had a dark side to it!
The Garhwal Himalayan region known locally as “Dev Bhumi” is home to some of the most holy shrines for Hindus - Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri. Being located in the higher altitudes, access to these shrines is physically difficult and in winter completely impossible. Therefore, when the snow melts, roads open up and there is an “onslaught” of tourists from across the country. There are thousands of people thronging a region that is probably not designed by nature to hold so many. If we look at the shrines themselves, they are not like the huge fortress like structures encompassing acres of land like the South Indian temples in the plains. They are small and designed to accommodate a few. The architects of those temples knew the ecological fragility of the zone when they constructed the temples. It was only the most devout and determined who braved the steep climb and grim weather to visit the temples.
But today the situation is different. The entire economy of the region appears to thrive on these temples. With easy access to any place and greater disposable incomes people want to travel. And when they do, religious places are the first ones that catch their fancy. Therefore, religious tourism or pilgrimage has become an important source of livelihood for the people of the Garhwal Himalayas. And the challenge here is that this livelihood is available only for a few months. So obviously, they want to make the most out of it.
I do not want to dwell on the relevance of the development infrastructure of the hills as I am not informed enough to write about it. However, what I do want to raise in this post is the unsafe pilgrimage conditions that exist in our country. This is of particular relevance to shrines in places that are located on hills and other ecologically sensitive zones.
As mentioned earlier, the shrines themselves are not built to accommodate the crowds that throng the places –whether it is Kedarnath or Sabarimala, the numbers are just too large for the temples. There are no proper systems of registering pilgrims and I am not sure if there are any building permission permits for the local tourist homes, hotels or dharamshalas which houses pilgrims. What I have seen is a commercialization of the hill sides- slopes being cleared to accommodate these buildings to house pilgrims. With such unregulated construction, the soil is bound to give way and when it does, landslides are a definite bet .And coupled with heavy rainfall, they became the right recipe for a large scale disaster!
The bodies inside and around the Kedarnath temple bear testimony to the wrath of nature. If there is a God, s/he is angry with the way we have been abusing the nature that was gifted to us. We have been unthinking in our greed, trying to make money out of religion in a most unconcerned manner about the future. It is not just the Char Dham. This is just the beginning. Other temples, located in such regions are soon going to be witness to similar events if we do not do something about it now.
We need regulation in terms of numbers of people who can be there at a given point in time in an ecologically sensitive area. There needs to be registration of people who have come and left. Buildings should not be allowed to mushroom up on the slopes like they have. There need to be strict guidelines for their coming up and maintenance. Of course, all of this would affect the tourism based livelihoods to some extent. In order to compensate for that, there should be investment in other sectors so that people are not completely dependent on this one source.
I am not a very religious person in the strict sense of the term. But I believe that God manifests himself through nature and environment. If we destroy them then we are attacking God. Hinduism talks about the Pralaya at the end of this Kali Yuga. I was left wondering last night if this was the beginning?
I sincerely hope not. I wish we humans be given another chance. I pray for those who are still up there. Godspeed those brave men of the Indian armed forces who are working day and night to get people out!