One of India’s most known religious shrine has been facing nature’s fury like never before. Little township housing Kedarnath shrine at an altitude of 3593 metres above sea level in hill state of Uttarakhand has been ravaged by a sudden cloudburst on Sunday, 16th June 2013. Euphoria over early onset of yearly monsoon in the peninsular region has quickly turned into tragedy and despair of very large magnitude. Both the hill states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh have suffered through a sudden downpour, nobody was ready for this early in the season. With casualty figures in hundreds and thousands other missing and loss of property worth millions, worst still seems to unfolding. More than 75 thousand pilgrims and tourists are still stranded at various places in both the states. Catastrophic impact reached in no time to New Delhi with flood warnings for national capital.
Cloudbursts in Himalayan region are not new. They have been happening before and with great magnitude. Besides, weather has been reason for many tragedies in past on the Char Dham route. In Hindi ‘Char’ stands for four and ‘Dham’ for deity’s seats. Char Dham is an annual pilgrimage that takes place in Uttarakhand and it includes visit to four places- Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri. Dedicated to Lord Shiva Kedarnath in Rudraprayag district is accessible through a 14 km trek from Gaurikund. Badrinath is seat of Lord Vishnu and it has road connectivity. Gangotri at an altitude of 3100 metres is on the banks of Bhagirathi River in Uttarkashi district and it too has road connectivity. But origin of Ganges River is at Gaumukh set in Gangotri glacier, a 19 km trek from Gangotri town. Last in the chain is Yamunotri, source of Yamuna River (which flows through New Delhi) in Uttarkashi district at an altitude of 3293 metres. Yamunotri again has a trek of approximate 13 kms from a place called Hanuman Chatti.
Quite obviously, besides the pilgrimage all these four places also hold a lot of interest for trekkers and mountaineers from across the world. But the irony of the situation is the Chardham Yatra (pilgrimage) takes place at the time, when monsoon is at its peak, thus not only increasing the chances of rain induced casualties, but also creating more pressure on already fragile ecosystem of the region. Ever increasing number of pilgrims and tourists as wells as local population create a demand for more service infrastructure in terms of houses, hotels, restaurants and roads. River beds are constantly encroached upon for construction, resulting in changing course of flow, more frequent floods.
The notion of development too has a role to play. Big industries are moving up the hills. Besides, there is ever increasing affinity to big dams. Both of them need wide and better roads. That means, you have to cut the hills continuously to widen the roads for bigger movements. More the digging, weaker become the hills with increased chances of landslides. A landslide will vanish the existing road, and then new portion of the hill would be cut down to construct another, bigger road. Ditto with all type of construction, thus keeping a warfront with nature always open. A war which mankind is destined to lose.
We can’t stop rains or cloudbursts (although there is a raging debate on the impact of global warming upon such events), but we could have certainly minimized the tragic impact of it. But we are very bad in learning lessons. Hence it’s only going to be worse.