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Apathy led to catastrophe

Exactly four years back I was driving down from Badrinath to Joshimath in a particularly good mood after having had a good darshan at the shrine and also a great visit to Mana, the last village on the Indian side on the international border with China. In fact National Highway 58, which starts from the national Capital ends at Mana village.

Driving down, I hummed Mukesh’s unforgettable number Suhana Safar aur yeh mausam haseen from Bimal Roy’s master-piece, Madhumati. Composed by incomparable Shailendra and put to tune by maestro Salil Chaudhary, the song has a stanza, yeh gori nadiyon ka chalna uchal kar, jaise alhad chale pi se milker (the milky white rivers flow bouncingly as a girl would walk with a spring in her feet after meeting her lover). Shailendra’s lines were inspired by the beauty of Himalayan rivers arising from glaciers in Garhwal region.

As we drove along, we realised the celestial Alaknanda for a distance of about 10 km between Pandukeshwar and Vishnupryag in Chamoli district had gone completely dry. Thanks to the drought that year, lack of snow in the upper Himalayas has ensured that there wasn’t much water to spare for the river after diverting the quantity required for the 400 Megawatt Vishnuprayag power plant. The flow was somewhat restored at Vishnuprayag, where Dhauliganga joined the dry river. The Alaknanda starts at the foot of the Satopanth and Bhagirath Kharak glaciers, near Tibet. The flow from the glaciers takes the shape of river at Keshavprayag, just ahead of Mana, where it is joined by Saraswati. The river flows approximately 229 km through the Alaknanda valley, where it is joined by its main tributaries Dhauliganga (Vishnuprayag), Nandakini (Nandprayag), Pindar (Karanprayag) and Mandakini (Rudraprayag). It meets the Bhagirathi at Devprayag, where the merger forms the Ganga. The Alaknanda is believed to have split off the celestial Ganga when it descended from heaven.

Was it the ferocity of the Ganga and its sister rivers which caused catastrophe on 17 June 2013 leading to ‘shockingly high’ death of  pilgrims visiting the four holy shrine of the Garhwal Himalayas – Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. While the first two are shrines dedicated to north India’s most important rivers Ganga and Yamuna, the shrines of Kedarnath and Badrinath present a unique feature – a Divyadesam in Kedarkhand that is a Vaihnavite shrine (Badrinath) in Saivite land.
Why blame the devotion of the pilgrims for the fate they met in search of salvation. My regular visit to these areas year-after-year has shown a totally callous attitude of the government to the tourists. A state where nearly 50 per cent of the annual revenue is generated through religious tourism, the government is also required to act as facilitator to reciprocate its indebtedness to the yatris.

However, the whole attitude of the government machinery towards facilitating the yatra is abysmal. This has been the major cause for so many deaths following the cloud burst above Kedarnath. Whenever a crisis emerges, the staple government reaction is that the situation arose because of the unprecedented rush or unpredictable weather. My question is why this rush or weather vagaries are not anticipated?

Rudraprayag district administration, which is directly responsible for managing the tourist flow to Kedarnath is not known to have delivered much in the past to believe that they could have averted the crisis when it came. Since Kedarnath is situated at a height of 3,500 metres, due to shortage of oxygen content in the air at the shrine, yatris generally plan a one-day visit to the temple. The temple is reached through a 13 km trek or pony ride from Gaurikund. Since the pony ride takes about four hours, people start early morning to be at the shrine by 10 am.

As the weather in these areas deteriorates in the afternoon, the yatris are advised to start their downhill journey latest by 2 pm. However, more often than not, the plans go awry due to complete mismanagement with huge traffic flow causing jams which in turn make it impossible to reach Gaurikund in time to undertake the trek in safe hours.

Those stuck in the jam are common pilgrims with the rich and mighty no longer taking the road link. With Pawan Hans and Prabhatam Aviation running chopper services from Fata, which is about 22 km before Gaurikund, the powerful officials seldom move beyond the helipad to know the status of the common yatris. These common yatris became the biggest victim of the tragedy this year. The non-aggressive attitude of the yatris, who often attribute the government ineptness to be part of pilgrims’ penance and spiritual progress, probably allows lackadaisical administration function without censure. During my several forays to the Himalayan shrines during the yatra season, I have never seen yatris complain about the lack of shelter and basic civic amenities on the pilgrimage route. What they only need from government is to allow a free and smooth flow of traffic, at which also the administration fails miserably.

The Uttarakhand government would do well to take a leaf or two out of the books of veteran administrators like Jagmohan and Lieutenant General S K Sinha. The former, who was also a prominent minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, has permanently etched a place for himself in the pilgrim folklore for creating extra-ordinarily facilities on the Vaishno Devi shrine route.
The improvements made by Jagmohan increased the tourist traffic to the shrine manifold. This helped the shrine board to increase its income several folds. Today a professionally managed board takes care of the deity and pilgrims and has remained a major source of revenue to the terrorist-hit state. The tourist traffic has also become a major source of livelihood for the poor local population of the region.

While Jammu region has one Vaishno Devi, Uttarakhand is blessed to have four major shrines in Garhwal Himalayas itself. Somebody like Jagmohan could advise the state government on how to bring reforms on the yatra routes.

The author is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is Consulting Editor, Millennium Post
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