Mantra for the Char Dham: Don't Panic!

Pilgrims enroute to Kedarnath (Image: Sundaram + Annam)
Pilgrims enroute to Kedarnath (Image: Sundaram + Annam)

'To be or not to be' may well be the new mantra for people undertaking the Himalayan Char Dham pilgrimage this year. The Char Dham, which is a pilgrimage to four venerated temples in Uttarakhand -- Yamunotri, Gangotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath -- is undertaken by lakhs of pilgrims annually (about six lakhs in 2013). Recently, it has been in the news yet again for recurring floods and landslides en route. While this year's floods pale in light of the tragedy of 2013 that killed about 5,700 people, what we must know is that the flood of 2013 was not an isolated incident. The same happened in 2010 , 2012 and 2014

The Char Dham yatra began with fanfare in May this year amid reassurances by the Chief Minister. The next month onwards, it has been in trouble with repeated disruption of the roads, bridges being washed away and several blockagessuspensionsresumptions, and evacuations. "The yatra is not suspended", said CM Harish Rawat even as 9000 pilgrims were stranded on the hills.

If 80% of our monsoons in the last five years have been destructive, floods are not an aberration -- they are the new normal.

Which area is impacted the most?
Each year, much of the damage caused by the monsoon is located largely in Garhwal, and mainly along the Gangotri highway and the Char Dham route, specifically the Char Dham route. A look at the map of landslide vulnerabiility in Uttarakhand prepared by the state's Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre clearly illustrates the overlap between the Char Dham region and the areas that are prone to landslides.

Large parts of the Char Dham yatra route fall in earthquake zone 5, and 46 of the 65 earthquakes recorded in Uttarakhand since 1803 have been in Uttarkashi, Chamoli, and along the border. Residents of Uttarakhand factor this into their plans and restrict travel during these months. Since the Char Dham peaks during the monsoon, the large mass of people who travel when the roads are most vulnerable are unfamiliar tourists.

What is wrong with the present picture?
IWP had recommended in 2013 that it is necessary to restrict the influx of tourists in floodprone areas. The Uttarakhand government, to their credit, has taken some measures towards preventing a reccurence of the tragic events of 2013. These include allowing only 5000 pilgrims a day, biometric registration of all visitors, and development of an SMS warning system but these measures ignore the many unofficial and unregistered workers who migrate to the area during the pilgrimage, and they also don't always succeed in obviating the necessity for airlifts. 

The state continues to focus on infrastructure-heavy development of the already fragile Char Dham route, and soon also plans to conduct a Winter Char Dham. This, despite repeated warnings against heavy construction in the area and the state being unequipped to deal with heavy snowfall.

Must the Char Dham happen only during these months?
No. The Char Dham as we know it today is not an ancient practice at all. It took its present form in the late 1960s after India's war with China when roads were constructed in the mountains for strategic purposes.This opened up the Himalayas and transformed an ardous trek once done only by Sadhus into a holiday for lakhs of tourists. There is nothing in the scriptures that insist on the Char Dham yatra at all. Hence, the most logical course would be to restrict the pilgrimage to only May and early June but logic and religious sentiments mostly do not go hand in hand. Despite the inconveniences and dangers, the Char Dham yatra remains hugely popular and continues to happen during the same time frame every year.

How can we mitigate the chaos that is Char Dham?

Ganesh Singh Martolia was until recently the Deputy Inspector General of the Uttarakhad State Disaster Response Force. Now posted as DIG Ardh Kumbh, he was the person who worked hard in the Kedarnath valley immediately after the disaster in 2013. Drawing on his experiences, he pointed out two key strategies that Uttarakhand needs to implement in order to mitigate the chaos that is Char Dham.

A narrow bridge at Yamunotri is vulnerable to rockfall from the slope upstream (Source: Wikimedia Commons)Explore options: "The main issue is that of connectivity", says Martolia. "Between late snowfall and incessant rains, the Border Roads Organisation and the State Public Works Department simply do not get the time to reassess and repair roads and bridges before the Yatra begins. There is a narrow margin of time from after Diwali when the temples close, to when the snow sets in. This is not enough for extensive repairs, but some assessment can be done. Some roads need to be realigned. There are some spots, such as the notorious Kaliasaur on the Badrinath road, where landslides occur nearly every monsoon. Instead of attempting to patch up these spots several times a year, it is necessary to seek out a more stable alignment using the landslide vulnerability assessments that have been done. Similarly, the bridges that tend to be washed away every year need to be relocated to safer sections of the river. This requires political will and planning".

Don't panic: "Having a road blocked for a few days is not a cause for panic. In July 2015, 6 bridges were washed away, but these were repaired within 3-4 days, so blocks do not last for long. The Government has ensured that each halt has a stockpile of food. This should be expanded to allow food stockpiles of upto a month. Once this is ensured, there is no reason to panic. Currently it is the media that creates panic. The Government has no option but to accede to this pressure and airlift people, which further feeds the fear. Instead, people need to be reassured and motivated to stay calm. Waiting out temporary blocks is something that people who live in the mountains do all the time. Pilgrims need to understand that they are journeying to a difficult terrain and must build some flexibility into their  plans. There is no need to panic, people need to wait where they are safe until the roads are repaired".

The Char Dham pilgrimage is currently a massive exercise involving many state departments. As Martolia suggests, a great deal of the chaos can be avoided by pilgrims adopting the Uttarakhandi native's mindset of planning according to the situation and not despite it. With increasing urbanisation and mobility, Uttarakhand too is in danger of becoming alienated from nature and losing its skill at working with the environment. The crises that occur regularly with the monsoon will hopefully remind the state to hold on to its traditional wisdom.