Features | Environment | South Asia

Uttarakhand Tragedy: Religious Tourism and Overdevelopment

Runaway development and a surge in religious tourism exacerbated the damage caused by the recent floods.

Uttarakhand Tragedy: Religious Tourism and Overdevelopment
Credit: Nishit Dholabhai

Seventy-nine-year-old Abha Sharma perks up the moment you step into her room and asks after her two grandchildren. Have Shweta and Aveek come back? On hearing an answer in the negative, she sinks into her armchair and falls silent.

Omkar Sharma, 53, his wife Veena, 48, and their two children, Shweta, 14, and Aveek, 12, left home along with a hired driver for the Chardham Yatra pilgrimage to Uttarakhand’s shrines of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamnotri on June 12. On the morning of the 14th, Omkar spoke with his elderly mother in Noida, a suburb of Delhi. That was the last anybody heard of the family. They were on their way to Kedarnath, but its more than three weeks and there has been no trace of them.

“I have come back few days ago from Uttarakhand after spending two weeks there in search of my elder brother,” says Gyanendra Sharma, Omkar’s younger brother and second of Abha’s three sons. “My brother Vijay will visit Badrinath in a day to resume the search,” he confides.

“I know this is a hope against hope but what can we do? Unless and until we get some trace of my elder brother and his family I will keep on searching,” he continues.

The Sharma family is not the only one to have lost loved ones in what is one of the worst ever natural calamities in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. There are many others. Newspapers are full of stories of missing family members. The English daily The Times of India has recently profiled a family in Delhi that has lost 29 of its members.

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The tragedy in the north Indian state occurred during peak season, when religious Hindus from all across India and abroad crowd the four pilgrim centers from May to November.

“I along with five of my friends were on the way to Badrinath when the rain started on June 14. The downpour became so heavy that the houses and lodges located near the river banks started crumbling and in no time I saw many people getting washed away. I lost four members
of my team and it was just a sheer luck that I managed to cling to an upper branch of a tree and survived the devastation,” says Pankaj Sharan, a survivor who was rescued three days after the tragedy by an army team.

Ashutosh Mishra, a journalist with the news agency ANI, was one of the first reporters to reach Badrinath after the tragedy struck the mountainous state. Speaking to The Diplomat, he recounts “a very horrifying experience to see the scale of tragedy. I saw a father trying to quench the thirst of his young son by squeezing the wet blanket but the boy collapsed after a while.”

“Seeing the suffering, dead bodies and inexplicable tragedies I started shuddering while interviewing the survivors, sometimes my mike will drop off from my hand,” recalls Mishra, who spent more than two weeks covering the event.

Mishra believes that “no fewer than 15,000 people perished in three days of devastation.”

But Deven Verma, a Delhi based tour operator who had a miraculous escape says that “not less than 40,000 people lost their lives because more than 100,000 people journey through Badrinath to Kedarnath every day during the peak season.”

The state government recently announced that 5,700 people missing after last month's devastating floods will now be presumed dead. But it is not clear exactly how many lives have really been lost in the worst-ever Himalayan tragedy in India.

News magazine Tehelka, citing data provided by the state government, says that around 100,000 vehicles visit the pilgrimage centers three times each year. Since 2005-2006, the number of registered taxis and jeeps in the state has jumped tenfold. And since 2010, the state has built an additional 4,500 km of road, and has nearly tripled its total road length in the past decade.

Reuters adds that between 2001 and 2010, the number of visitors to the state rose nearly 200 percent to 30.3 million. With the state home to major Hindu shrines, about 70 percent of its tourists are there to visit religious sites. That is a worrying sign for ecologically fragile areas such as Kedarnath, a small temple town located 3,583 meters (11,755 feet) above sea level and almost entirely washed away in recent flash floods.

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Environmentalists say that this unbridled development and growth of religious tourism has come at the cost of the environment, contributing significantly to the magnitude of natural calamities.

The journal Economic and Political Weekly comments that in Uttarakhand, a chaotic process of development over many year has exacerbated the effects of the extreme rain. Extensive deforestation of mountain tracts has caused soil erosion and water run-off. This has destabilized the mountain slopes and caused more intense and frequent landslides and floods.

Some 680 dams are in planning or construction in Uttarakhand alone. These dams exacerbate any flooding, as tunneling and excavation dump huge quantities of debris into ­river basins.

Indrajit Bose of the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based environmental think tank, told The Diplomat that there is a lesson to be learnt from the Uttarakhand tragedy. “We have to understand that climate change is taking place. We need to factor climate vulnerability into planning. You cannot have mindless numbers of dams and hydro projects anymore. Don’t flirt with the natural course of rivers. The Himalayas are the youngest mountain system and whatever project we are launching an environmental assessment is necessary,” says Bose.

Bose laments the fact that “the disaster management response is not working properly in the country. There was warning from the met department of heavy rainfall and cloudburst but no action was taken to stop the progress of the pilgrims to the shrines.”

The unusual nature of the tragedy has shaken the faith of many believers. Many say that they will never return.

For many in India, rising religiosity over the years has been a matter of concern. Even as the country has experienced rising economic growth, it has also registered a surge in religious beliefs. That in turn has produced sharp rises in the number of travelers visiting the four pilgrimage centers in Uttarakhand.

Because of fear of retaliation from religious fundamentalist forces very few raise the issue. But many have been saying quietly for some time that rising religiosity is hurting India’s environment.

Professor Badri Raina, a well-known social and political commentator, expresses his anguish in a poem:

They had great faith in the gods

Dotting the hills and dales—
Those men and women who
Are now corpses….

This young man, dead and askew…

The bold accusation in his eyes,
Resentfully alive in his death,
Waits for answer.

Amitabh Pandey, an ardent critic of religion and one of the most vocal proponents of rationalism, says that growing religiosity is not only harming the environment in ecologically sensitive regions like Amarnath and Uttarakhand, but is also hindering the development of a scientific outlook that is essential for the growth of society.

Pandey hopes that “the tragedy in the Himalayan state would prod some believers to question the blind faith”.

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Meanwhile Abha Sharma, a devout Hindu and a regular to the local temple near her house, has not stepped out of her house since learning of the disappearance of her son and his family.

“It seems something has snapped in my mother. The prayer room has not been opened for more than two weeks now, something which I have never seen happening in my life so far,” says her son Gyanendra.