Some developments that have taken place in the recent past since the start of the pilgrimage and tourism season have made even the distant sounding chime of alarm bells ring very loudly. It is another thing that to some even the alarm bells sound melodious and appear to be a positive sign.
According to officials, last year in the entire Yatra season about 27 lakh tourists had visited Uttarakhand but this year, the number of such visitors crossed 17 lakh within a month of the Char Dham shrines being reopened to the public. In about a month’s time 3.5 lakh people visited Kedarnath while the number of visitors in the corresponding period last year was about 1.5 lakh. Some are claiming that this is because Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the shrine and spent a night in a cave with some facilities. That makes one wonder whether one should be visiting a shrine out of devotion to the deity or because an impressive political leader visited it.
Actually, the people alone can’t be blamed for this, because the powers that be themselves have been quite confused- one has to be confused or ignorant to propagate concepts like ‘religious tourism’ in a state where responsible tourism is mostly an alien concept on the ground irrespective of the workshops and speeches of politicians and ideas of bureaucrats. So basically, this flood of visitors resulted in major traffic jams, lack of shelter for the visitors themselves and other factors associated with crowding. In various places, lack of fuel in petrol/diesel pumps and absence of cash in ATMs exacerbated the problems faced by both the visitors and locals. In hill stations like Nainital, traffic congestion and tourists spending the night in the open due to hotels and lodges being fully booked last weekend presented a very poor picture of the state which claims to be a happening destination for tourists.
While those earning from tourism and pilgrimage made brisk profits, the others and the environment suffered. One wonders how such a situation was allowed to develop despite stern directions of the high court—regarding congestion in Nainital-- and countless workshops, meetings and claims made by the authorities about preventing such situations.It could be attributed to utter lack of vision or the tendency to accord more importance to potential for earning praise and more for success in a venture even when logic states that such a venture would be disastrous. A case for example is that of the minister who recently announced the state government’s plan for encouraging dark tourism in Kedarnath. Quoting the definition of this concept as tourism involving travel to places historically associated with death and tragedy, the minister cited examples of the New York Twin Towers destroyed in a terror attack and places associated with the dark deeds of Nazis and nuclear accidents. The authorities seem to be ignoring the fact that none of these places are ancient shrines associated with centuries of religious and spiritual sentiments. Multitudes believe the lord actually resides in Kedarnath but the authorities want to set up a virtual reality theme park and museum based on the 2013 disaster there to attract more visitors and generate more revenue.
Apart from the skewed concepts that many in the establishment seem to be enthusiastic about, there is also one major flaw that few seem to be bothered about. Since the influx of tourists and pilgrims remains largely unregulated, the carrying capacity of the State is not being considered.
The situation is akin to a person inviting a crowd of guests without knowing how many the venue will hold. One doesn’t invite many guests to one’s home if there isn’t enough space or food for them but this piece of common sense seems to be missing when it comes to inviting tourists to the state. And, the number is expected to rise further in the future after completion of the all weather road project. One wonders whether many lakhs of people consistently visiting Uttarakhand will leave the peace and rich environment as it is in a State where even an efficient garbage disposal system is not in place.
It is not as if the intentions of the establishment are bad but the methods to achieve these leave many questions unanswered. One only hopes that the answers will be provided by corrective and regulatory actions rather than by disaster which can never be too far away in a seismically active region vulnerable to varied disasters.