Lifting of Travel Restrictions for Char Dham Yatra: potential disastrous consequences for the fragile Himalayan environment
Manasi Hansa is an independent lawyer. An alumni of NLU, Jodhpur, she is a strong advocate for sustainable development and frequently organises plantation drives in Dehradun.
Char Dham Yatra, a pilgrimage to four Hindu shrines located in the Himalayan region, has been opened for tourists in 2023 on 22nd April. Until last year, the government had put restrictions on the number of devotees allowed per destination. These were however revised, considering the sheer numbers of pilgrims, far exceeding the daily limit. The revisions capped the daily limit to 16,000 in Badrinath, 13,000 in Kedarnath, 8,000 in Gangotri and 5,000 in Yamunotri. However this year, the Char Dham Yatra travel restrictions were altogether abolished through a government order a day before the commencement of the Yatra. .
The question remains whether this revision makes sense considering the eco-sensitivity of the Himalayan region.
The Himalayan region is known for its fragile ecology, threatened by human activity over the years. Linking the Char Dham Project, comprising the widening of an 825 km road network is set to claim 56,000 trees in total, out of which 36,000 have already been chopped as of 2021. This is unfolding in a region that is already withering from soil erosion and prone to landslides. A study by the Wadia Institute finds that up to 51% of Uttarakhand is susceptible to landslides, with Rudraprayag and Chamoli districts being the most prone. The Alaknanda River basin runs along the site of at least 500 landslide-prone zones. Construction and blasting have created new micro cracks in rocks, giving rise to newer landslides .
Joshimath, a town just miles away from Badrinath, is suffering the consequences of indiscriminate construction and development activity. At least 849 houses have developed cracks, and the future of the town and its residents is uncertain .
Geologist S P Sati expressed fears for the ecology of the region as the infrastructure was insufficient to accommodate the influx. Various hotels, lodges, and resorts are constructed without proper planning. The goal is to attract and accommodate more tourists at any cost. Badrinath has a total hotel capacity of 12,000 tourists, not enough to accommodate the daily visitors to the shrine during yatra time. Let’s not forget the vehicular pollution and waste production that this huge influx of population is going to bring. The combined carbon footprint of this activity is a fundamental contributor towards the melting of ice caps and glaciers in this region. 
Gaumukh, where the Ganga emerges from Gangotri Glacier, is not far from where the free reign of human activity has just been sanctioned. It is important to recognise that the Char Dham Yatra is not only a religious and/or spiritual journey but is also an environmental and ecological journey. Sustainable practices that are mindful of the fragile ecology of the region should be prioritised to protect the Himalayan region for future generations.
Considering all these reasons, it is important to reduce human activity in this unique and susceptible ecological zone. Yet, what the present Uttarakhand Government has done is the polar opposite. Recent videos of landslides on Badrinath Highway are only a preview of destruction that also puts the lives of pilgrims and seekers at risk. With the onset of Monsoons such landslides will inevitably magnify. It is certain that the revision of the scheme is not a step towards sustainable development but towards dangerous and mindless destruction.
Photo courtesy: Debarup Mukherjee
- Source: (https://www.indiatvnews.com/news/india/char-dham-yatra-2023-uttarakhand-government-lifts-cap-on-numbers-pilgrims-allowed-at-shrines-daily-pushkar-singh-dhami-kedarnath-latest-news-2023-04-21-865608)
- Source: (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/dehradun/char-dham-all-weather-road-to-claim-over-56000-trees-36000-already-felled/articleshow/80515611.cms)
- Source: (https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/dehradun/uttarakhand-500-landslide-prone-zones-in-alaknanda-valley-finds-study/articleshow)
- Source: (https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/uttarakhand-govt-starts-road-widening-work-for-char-dham-yatra-1514477-2019
- Source: (https://www.newsclick.in/we-are-witnessing-malignant-growth-dubbed-govt-vikas-scientist-sp-sati)