In his first election rally on 27 December 2016 in Dehradun, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised the people of Uttarakhand construction of an all-weather highway with 13 modern bridges for the four shrines pilgrimage (Char Dham Yatra). Construction of such a highway, if undertaken, will be a Herculean task — it will take many years and billions of rupees. The promise also showed the prime minister’s poor understanding of the Uttarakhand hills and the ecology.
In fact, there are already wide roads to the Char Dham — Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri — and one can even easily drive a car easily up to Badrinath and Gangotri. What is needed is better maintenance and amenities along the way.
Second, there cannot be an "all-weather road" as the doors of all dhams get closed during the winters and roads are also covered with heavy snow.
Third, the prime minister completely ignored the immense physical and ecological devastation the highway construction will cause to the hills that are already ruined or weakened by the abundance of roads. The hills of Uttarakhand — Tehri, Pauri and Chamoli, in particular — have been quite susceptible to developmental projects as two of our mightiest rivers — Ganga and Yamuna — and many others originate and flow through these areas and make the hills more moist and porous as compared to
the hills short of big rivers. Sliding of soil and stones in the lake formed by the Tehri Dam is a common sight today.
No doubt, tourism (religious tourism especially) is one of the biggest sources of income in Uttarakhand and amounts to 4.4 percent of the gross state domestic product (GSPD). It suffered during the time of disastrous floods in 2013 with a loss of Rs 12,000 crore. But if we compare this GSDP with the relatively smaller neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh, it provides a study in contrast.
The tourist industry in Himachal Pradesh contributes around 7.8 percent of GSPD even though the state has a lesser number of places meant for religious tourism than Uttarakhand. But, on the other hand, Himachal Pradesh also has many more tourist spots — at least 25 much celebrated as well as solitary places — with better facilities which attract an ever-increasing number of foreign tourists every year.
Uttarakhand can boast of important shrines, but the pilgrimage is mostly undertaken by the poor and middle-class people with shoe-string budgets. There is no dearth of scenic attractions for tourists in Uttarakhand, but, except for some well-known centres, they still remain to be fully developed or enabled to accommodate the flow of tourists. It’s very surprising to know that almost all tourist spots in Uttarakhand were discovered by the British before Independence and only one place, Auli in Chamoli district, was established as the winter games spot after Independence, and that too is in want of amenities and maintenance.
The dominance of the army cantonments at many tourist places since the colonial period has been another misfortune. Beautiful natural habitats like Ranikhet, Kausani, Chakrata, Lansdowne, Harsil are under the control of the army which hinders their expansion and improvement as no infrastructural work can be done without the consent of the army. When this region was a part of Uttar Pradesh and after it gained a separate statehood, no government or political party ever thought of exploring and developing new tourist spots which could attract tourists from the country and abroad, therefore generating revenues in a big way.
Take, for instance, the case of Harsil, on way to Gangotri, which is a rare wide place in the narrow Bhagirathi valley. It was discovered by one captain Wilson or Raja Wilson as he was later called. A fugitive from the British army during 1857 revolt, he used the Bhagirathi waters for transporting wooden logs that were much in demand from the British Government for laying the railway tracks in the country and made so much of money that the revenue of the ruler of the then Tehri State increased tenfold. Wilson even started his own currency, generated electricity at the local level and built a huge wooden house that got burnt down by two fires.
The great Hindi scholar Rahul Sankritayan along with poet Nagarjun had stayed in the house when he journeyed to Tibet for bringing the original Buddhist manuscripts to India. Harsil could be turned into one of the most beautiful, serene tourist spots in the country, but, being a cantonment area, its capacity to accommodate tourists remains restricted and people are not very welcome there. In fact, there are many more quaint and less-frequented places all around, but exploring and developing them into full-fledged tourism centres has never been a priority of the political parties in the state.
This situation has resulted in overloading in places of pilgrimage. There had been no control or regulation on the inflow of religious travellers and it was only after the devastating floods of 2013 and after the knowledge of at least 34,000 pilgrims were present at Kedarnath at the time of tragedy that monitoring of the number of travellers to the shrines began. The pressure on religious places during the rush season remains difficult to cope with.
Given the situation, the Herculean task of constructing a great highway to Char Dham as devised by Narendra Modi sounds more like a joke vis-à-vis a problem which has a good solution in the exploration of more, new and modernised hill stations which could contribute in increasing the revenue of the state and making it more beautiful and liveable.
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Updated Date: Feb 04, 2017 10:07:35 IST