How the hills pay for retail religion
As Uttarakhand grapples with one of the worst disasters to hit the region, terming the catastrophe a monsoon malady is not only misleading but also extremely harmful. With over 5,000 dead and mass cremations performed at Kedarnath to avert outbreak of any epidemic, and over thousands still stranded at remote and hazardous locations desperately awaiting rescue relief, the ordeal is clearly still not over. In the light of this unprecedented ecological mayhem, we are in need of an urgent reconnaissance as to the actual casualties of the ongoing devastation. In fact, to see it as a ‘sudden onslaught’ brought about by ‘unpredictable vagaries of nature’ would amount to disregarding the incredible extent of environmental degradation that the young hills of Uttarakhand, essentially the foothills of the youngest mountain formation in the world – the Himalayas, have withstood in the last quarter century. As a matter of fact, this extreme rebellion on the part of nature was imminent, even though cloud bursts and landslides have been occurring in this region since the beginning of time. However, what needs to be taken into account is that the staggering levels of urbanisation, driven mostly by the twin impulses of religion and tourism, have brought about such a large-scale ruination of the ecological bounties that even a regular phenomenon such as heavy rains could now unleash devastation at a scale unseen in olden times, but of course, comfortably sitting along with the other instances of environmental cataclysms that have been rocking the world with an alarmingly accelerated periodicity.
Coming back to the reasons driving unsustainable urbanisation, in addition to the ritual odes to development and growth, we cannot discount how an ugly concoction of saleable religion, instant and easy tourism and their adjunct trends, including mushrooming of service industries such as hotel and travel agencies, restaurants and eateries, vehicle providers etc, have contributed to the slow but steady damage of the sensitive ecological zone that is the Uttarakhand valley. More and more people are traveling to and from Uttarakhand in heavy gas-guzzling vehicles, the numbers of which have gone up from a few thousands two decades back to over 60-70,000 per year at present. In addition, the innumerable bridges, multi-storied buildings, mostly hotels surrounding the holy shrines, dams and power plants that barely generate enough electricity and also sustain humongous transmission loss, as well as the soaring population levels in this once-pristine hilly terrains, have led to unbelievable loss to the natural habitat, forcing birds and animals out of their millennial abodes. What kind of a religion thrives at the expense of other life forms and what kind of traveling entails massive destruction on its heels? It is the indiscriminate felling of deciduous trees and clearing off forests in order to facilitate the religious and touristy overdrives of neo-pilgrims, who want instant access to religious ecstasy and wisdom by virtue of being present at a shrine without understanding the worth of the actual journey, that has precipitated this disaster.