CP Rajendran is an adjunct professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru
The starting of the monsoon has seen a spate of cloudbursts and attendant hazards over various parts of the Himalayas. India’s annual high-altitude pilgrimage to the Himalayan shrines this year had met with several hazardous events ending up with heavy loss of human life. One single major incident that stands out occurred on July 8th in the Lidder Valley enroute to the 3,880-metre-high Amarnath cave killing at least 16 people and more than 40 are still reported to be missing due to a flash flood triggered by a cloudburst. The Char Dham connectivity roads in the Uttarakhand Himalaya, on the other hand, have been impacted by a greater number of landslides this time resulting in the deaths of several and forcing the roads to be closed. In the Uttarakhand Himalaya, most of the current landslides coincide with the areas where the roads are widened almost to a four-lane road width - a road project being implemented against the scientific advice not to tamper with the fragile hill slopes made of weak rocks.
Every year the potential number of pilgrims are expected to increase in number as can be seen in the current trend of increment in number of pilgrims each year. The Amarnath pilgrims in 2009 were close to 4 lakhs, which rose to 6.21 lakh in 2012. According to the official sources, this year an all-time high of 8 lakh pilgrims is expected. Likewise, the cap on the number of pilgrims to the shrines in Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri –the Char Dham pilgrim route is also being increased every year. The number of people going to the Char Dham shrines is also unprecedented this year. The Uttarakhand tourism department figures indicate that the daily average footfall of pilgrims at the four Char Dham shrines currently stands at around 58,000 - almost 15,000 more than what was recorded over the past couple of years. The officially stated numbers suggest that in the place of 34 lakh pilgrims registered for Char Dham visits 16 lakhs have registered in one month this year.
A study on Municipal Solid Waste generation during the Amarnath Yatra season this year, about 1,000 tons of garbage is estimated to be generated during the yatra period. The Environmental Impact Assessment of the Lidder Valley a few years ago by the experts from the Kashmir University, indicates that the carrying capacity of the area dictates that only 4,300 people can be allowed on a single day, but an average of 12,353 pilgrims are reported to have visited the cave every day during the first 25 days of the pilgrimage in the sampling year of 2019, far beyond the suggested hosting capacity of the area. After a tragedy in 1996, when bad weather caused the death of over 250 pilgrims, a government committee had recommended capping the total number of people visiting the Amarnath Cave at one lakh over 30 days with less than 3400 people per day.
An attendant problem of higher footfall is the generation of huge amounts of waste including plastics and horse and donkey excreta that are disposed of by the side of the walking trails. This will have serious implications for the local ecosystems and will ultimately impact the growth of the iconic ice stalagmite itself – the very focus of pilgrims’ devotion, thus defeating the entire purpose. The ground reports also say that plastic waste dumped in large or small pits and the cleaning operations resort to open burning that are highly hazardous. The Char Dham routes are also witnessing this growing mound of garbage since the beginning of the pilgrimage season. The unregulated human activities during the pilgrimage are most likely to impact the quality of water and air in these regions. Resulting from human breath and refuse, the experts have also warned that the heavy pilgrim traffic could result in melting of glaciers and environmental degradation with serious impact on biodiversity. The Amarnath shrine located at the far end of the Lidder valley is an area that hosts most glaciers – a source of water for the Jhelum River.
Many of these higher altitude areas, especially in the Uttarakhand Himalaya host rare medicinal plants which are facing serious extinction threat. The climate change coupled with dumping of waste pose serious challenges to the security of such rare plants. In its enthusiasm to promote pilgrim tourism the authorities cannot afford to ignore the pressure of increased footfall on the fragile ecology of the mountain systems, which are already reeling under the effects of climate change. Avalanches, high magnitude floods, landslides due to increased slope instability are on the increase in the Himalaya, from the western parts of the mountain ranges to the east. Recently, the MoEF has released a notification exempting all areas closer to borders from any environmental impact assessment for highways. But conservation policies in tune with the fragile ecology of the terrain are being ignored. A realistic conservation strategy should be based on a blueprint that strikes a balance between infra-structural development and acceptable levels of risk.
The 2013 Kedarnath flood was a wake-up call. The intensity of this disaster was directly proportional to the unregulated rise in tourism that led to a construction boom in unsafe zones such as the river valleys and flood plains and slopes vulnerable to landslides, violating laws on land use. This tragedy should have been a window of opportunity to embark on a new strategy for sustainable development in ecologically fragile areas in the Himalaya. Many issues concerning the mountain population confront the social conscience - despite claims of a successful tourism policy. Most of the local population continues to live in abject poverty and the innumerable dams across the Himalayan Rivers provide no relief to the local people (read women) who must trudge miles for water from natural springs that are also now drying up fast.
Just last year we witnessed the death of 200 workers in the Rishi Ganga flash flood disaster who were engaged in Tapovan Vishnugad hydro power project and were washed away in the roaring river solely due to the absence of an alarm, a basic requirement in such disaster prone areas. Obviously, much needs to be done by way of mitigating the impact of environmental hazards. The current predictive capabilities of natural disasters remain under-utilized in India. Doppler radar is ideal for real-time tracking of potential cloudbursts, especially if there is a network that allows it to track the air pressure and moisture. Currently, the radars are installed in areas 200-300 km away from the Garhwal region, which makes it difficult to predict cloudbursts in the region. Tackling future natural disasters will require a healthy mix of technology and scientific studies; Most importantly, stop destabilizing the hill slopes in the name of so-called “infrastructure” a.k.a. building freeways and dams. Already bearing the issues of forest fires, deforestation, loss of water sources, and soil loss, these areas highly prone to landslides and land sinking cannot bear the brunt of unregulated tourism and footfall.
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