Huge tourist influx from India and around the world

According to the draft tourism policy 2017 of the Uttarakhand government, the number of tourists visiting Uttarakhand has consistently increased from around 11 million in 2000 to 28 million in 2012.

Following the 2013 disaster, it saw a dip but by 2015 the number was near 25 million. In 2018, it is expected to break all previous records and cross 30 million tourist arrivals – almost three times the population of Uttarakhand itself. By 2026 the number of tourists is expected to touch a whopping figure of 67 million.

The analysis of tourists coming to the hill state also reveals that among the foreign tourists, nearly 58 percent of the visits were for holiday/sightseeing, 21.9 percent for health/yoga and about 19.4 percent for pilgrimage/religious functions.

But among domestic tourists, the main purpose remains pilgrimage as Uttarakhand is home to several pilgrimage sites like Char Dham – Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath − and Hemkund Sahib. The report noted that about 44 percent of the domestic tourist visits were for pilgrimage. Uttarakhand’s Char Dham yatra starts in April of each year and ends in November when the temples close for the winter.

Source: Draft tourism policy 2017 by the Uttarakhand government. Chart by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

The Uttarakhand government also attaches huge importance to the tourism sector as it considers it to be one of the major drivers of economic growth and livelihood for its people. Earlier this year, the government had even given ‘industry’ status to the tourism sector, enabling the sector to avail concessions and benefits usually extended to micro, small and medium enterprises.

But environmentalists argue that “greed” has suppressed the “common sense” of the authorities in case of the tourism sector in Uttarakhand.

“Char Dham was considered to be a quiet place where pilgrims used to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere, respect sanctity of environment, maintain silence to meditate but that is no more the case. The government has turned into a highly commercial tourist spot which is unsustainable, loud and has no regard to environment whatsoever. This is no more a pilgrimage and the only focus is on increasing tourists and thus revenue. It is a ruthless exploitation of this area,” said Hemant Dhyani, an Uttarakhand based environmentalist.  

“The Badrinath temple is of Lord Vishnu and his prayers are considered incomplete until conch is blown. But our ancestors understood the sanctity of the place and usage of conch was prohibited to maintain the quiet ambience of the area. However, today at Char Dham we see an indiscriminate use of loudspeakers, light and sound shows are being organised and even political programmes are being held. Even if you forget these cultural and traditional sensibilities, how can we forget that there are protected areas adjacent to the Char Dham?” he questioned.

“Demonic development of Devbhoomi”

The concerns of environmentalists like Dhyani are not ill-founded as several reports following the 2013 tragedy highlighted these issues and suggested steps including the need of regulating the influx of tourists.

Among the Char Dhams, Gangotri is situated next to the Gangotri National Park and Kedarnath is just few hundred metres from the Kedarnath Musk Deer Sanctuary. The Gangotri national park is home to the Gaumukh glacier, which is considered the origin of the River Ganga.

To reduce the pressure on the environment, only 150 people are allowed in the national park per day. The visitors are also mandated to bring back whatever plastic material they take with them while trekking to Gaumukh from Gangotri.

In order to protect the area, only 150 tourists a day are allowed to visit Gaumukh near Gangotri. Photo by Barry Silver/Wikimedia Commons.

Experts feel such regulations have helped maintain a balance in the ecologically sensitive area and probably similar regulations are needed for the Char Dham yatra circuit as well, especially in light of the unabated and unregulated development.

“There is nothing sacred anymore. The civic sense of environment is missing. Right now the only vision of the government is to earn revenue. The government first needs to clearly differentiate between tourism and pilgrimage. Only then we can look at solutions to regulate the number of tourists. This is the demonic development of Devbhoomi of Uttarakhand and nothing else,” said Dhyani, further highlighting the recent court order that has banned all adventure tourism activities in the hill state until the government has the policy to regulate it.

Time to regulate tourism in Uttarakhand? Video by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

Last year, a “Strategy Paper on Science & Technology intervention for post-disaster reconstruction efforts in Uttarakhand” by the Planning Commission noted that the June 2013 disaster was aggravated due to the unplanned development in the region.

“Various developmental activities pursued over the years could not meet the requirements of the ecology and topology of the region. The huge deforestation, high intensity blasting across the hills, unregulated haphazard construction of houses even in the river terrace region, have led to the destruction of the natural ecosystem and distressed the ecosystem, endangering the local ecology and human life,” it noted.

Construction debris and activities along Mandakini river near the base from where the trek to Kedarnath begins. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

It also calls for a series of regulations on construction activities and tourism.

“Construction activities in the high and very high-risk zones identified through this process need to be regulated through legislation by the government… The tourist influx to famous places (particularly Char-Dham) needs to be regulated based on the carrying capacity. Early warning systems and the infrastructure to disseminate the warnings to the tourists need to be strengthened,” the strategy paper recommended.

Similar concerns were highlighted in a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2015. The report noted that recommendations by expert committees to ban the use of explosives for infrastructure developmental works in the fragile Himalayan terrain were ignored and Uttarakhand government failed in forming a policy for the use of explosives during such activities.

The CAG report had observed that the state government also failed to enforce building by-laws to regulate constructions along the river banks. What is worrying is that the rising number of tourists in Uttarakhand is only going to intensify such violations as there will be competition to provide resources for them.

The issue of carrying capacity of the hill state has been gaining momentum and also found a mention in the state’s draft tourism policy last year. But concrete action is yet awaited. The draft tourism policy advocates for sustainable tourism development principles and adhering to carrying capacity of destinations. This is significant as prominent tourist attractions of Uttarakhand like Nainital and Mussoorie already see more tourists than their carrying capacity every year.

“Carrying capacities at destinations shall be scientifically evaluated and respected especially in terms of visitor management and development of infrastructure. It shall be included in all future tourism planning process in the state,” the draft policy emphasised.

Perhaps a similar need to rein in unregulated tourism activities in the state was felt by the Uttarakhand High Court. In June 2018, the high court banned all adventure and water sports in the state until the Uttarakhand government enacts a strict regulation policy for them.

The issue had been under the legal scanner for some time and had intensified after the government’s recent plan to introduce water sports on the Tehri lake. A case on the issue is also going on at the National Green Tribunal.

The CAG report also stated the poor preparedness of the Uttarakhand government at the time of the disaster, highlighting that the state did not have a mechanism in place for registering pilgrims coming to Char Dham.

Overhaul of infrastructure in Kedarnath

Following criticism and reports highlighting their ill-preparedness, Uttarakhand authorities began to make changes and the area around Kedarnath temple underwent a major overhaul.

“After the 2013 disaster, the government decided to maintain a biometric database of pilgrims coming to Char Dham. At Kedarnath, they have established local internet facilities and have set up sector magistrate after every few kilometres of the trek. A live camera feed even goes till the Prime Minister’s Office in Delhi,” said Khushal Singh Rawat, who is with the Uttarakhand administration and currently manages pilgrim records at Sonprayag, the starting point of the Kedarnath trek. 

Explaining the sea change in facilities at that pilgrimage site, Rawat said, now there are proper records of pilgrims, mules and porters operating in their area, public announcement systems all through the trek to Kedarnath, CCTVs and medical facilities.  

“The mules also have radio tags using which we can track their journey from base camp to Kedarnath in real-time. All this was done after government faced a problem of pilgrim records when the 2013 disaster hit,” he added.

According to Rawat, at the time of the disaster, there were about 6,000 mules and horses and of those, about 1,500 mules and horses were washed away in the floods.  

“The situation has now improved vastly. Now we have about 6,500 mules and horses during the peak season of May and June, about 3,300 porters are registered and there is a high level of coordination among local agencies,” Rawat added.

But despite such widespread changes, there are still clear signs of the route that the flood waters had taken when they destroyed the Kedarnath town in 2013. There is now a boundary wall around the Kedarnath temple, though it is uncertain if it can withstand water pressure should there be a repeat of the 2013 floods.

Additionally, there is a huge increase in the number of lodging facilities. The Uttarakhand government itself now has about 1700 beds in its facilities compared to around 250 before 2013. The number of companies operating helicopters to ferry pilgrims has almost doubled and the trip frequency has increased since 2013.

Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) Ltd. has constructed facilities that can now accommodate around 1700 pilgrims in Kedarnath. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

“The 2013 tragedy had inflicted a lot of damage here. But the government has developed very good cottages here now … we have witnessed 100 percent occupancy. From April 2018 when yatra started this year, a total of 4,332 have stayed at our facility alone. Including our cottage facilities, there are about 1700 beds by the government at Kedarnath,” said Arvind Methani, who is the manager of the newly developed Swarn Cottages of the Uttarakhand government controlled Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) Ltd.

Even as environmentalists list out their concerns, the pilgrims, who constitute a significant part of Uttarakhand’s tourists, seem satisfied. On way to Kedarnath, conversations with pilgrims indicate that they are in fact happy with the improved facilities catering to the convenience of visitors.

A family of devotees from Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu and Saint Petersburg, Russia. Pilgrims from all across the country and the globe consider a trip to one of the Char Dhams as a milestone in their spiritual journey. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

Deepak Kumar, a pilgrim from Mansa area in Punjab, expressed his happiness with the facilities available. “As compared to the last few years, the path has now been cleared and made more accessible. Visitors are not fooled with the rates of a horse since everything has been standardised by the government. Food and lodging facilities have increased and are great.”

Kalaimani Siva Damodaran from Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu, who was visiting Kedarnath for the seventh time said, “The disaster destroyed the old path that was on the left side. But owing to the efforts of the Indian government we have a new, well made path on the opposite side.”

Helicopters fly high in holy Kedarnath

“Before the 2013 tragedy, the average number of pilgrims using helicopter services everyday was around 200-250. But since 2015, the number of people using helicopter services has increased and on average 1,000 people are using helicopters everyday,” said Devendra Semwal, who has been working with Heritage Aviation at Kedarnath for the past nine years.

The helicopter services at Kedarnath started in 2007-08 but their frequency increased after the 2013 floods. From around five companies before the floods, the numbers are now close to 10. The journey to Kedarnath and back, that could take up to two days, can now be completed in less than two hours.

In January 2017, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) carried out a study to assess the impacts of helicopter services on the wildlife of Kedarnath Musk Deer Sanctuary. The study was carried out after some of the local residents raised concerns over the potential impact on wildlife due to high-intensity sound produced by the helicopters.

The study revealed that “some wildlife species altered their activity pattern to either crepuscular or nocturnal due to the cumulative effects of anthropogenic pressures in this area mostly in the form of pilgrimage and associated human activities.”

The WII analysis found that helicopter sorties ranged from two to more than 300 per day in the Mandakini Valley.

“Since most of the mammals appear to have adapted to this level of noise, it should not be allowed to go beyond the current levels of helicopter flights. Therefore, efforts have to be made to ensure that the upper limit for the number of flights per day does not exceed 300 flights per day,” the study said.

It also suggested a passenger ropeway for transportation of pilgrims as an environment friendly alternative and a long-term measure stating that it will reduce pilgrim trekking to Kedarnath and helicopter services.

“Our study recommended that the number of helicopter sorties should not exceed 300/day. It also showed that animals living in the Kedarnath Valley have adapted to the noise of helicopters and some have even altered their activity from diurnal or crepuscular to nocturnal. In other words, some species have changed their activity time to night against the usual daytime,” said S. Sathyakumar, who is a senior scientist with the Wildlife Institute of India and the lead author of the study.

As the number of tourists visiting Char Dham increases, the challenge to protect the fragile landscape of Uttarakhand intensifies. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

As tourists continue to throng Uttarakhand and the infrastructure development continues at a rapid rate, the toll on the natural landscape goes unchecked. Apart from causing environmental issues, this eventually could affect the overall experience of a pilgrim or a tourist. Under human pressure, the land of Gods may never be the same again.

[Read: Waiting to heal: Five years since the Uttarakhand floods, the scares are still fresh and Five years since Uttarakhand floods: Continued disregard for the environment is an open invitation for more calamities]

Article published by Mayank Aggarwal

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