Pilgrim’s progress: Insights from a public FB post

Tisha Srivastav
Manager, Content Production
The Water Cooler

Bridge over the Ganga in Uttarakhand. Credit: Sandeep Somasekharan/ The Green Ogre

New Delhi based entrepreneur Sunny Narang’s public Facebook post on Thursday raised and debated issues concerned with the pilgrimages in the Uttarakhand Himalayas. Sometimes the solutions that even well-meaning people propose battle one another, becoming part of the problem and complicating it.

In this case, the barrage of opinions comes fast and furious, just like the floods, with insights, suggestions and a richness of human conversation that flows back and forth through time, experience, hope, cynicism and each from its line of vision. This is a wisdom that belongs to the people, but it is a vision that has rarely been realised on the ground. Tune in. Those in power who continue bickering over ‘natural’ and ‘man made’ could pay heed too, and not only when nature comes calling.

Annotated excerpts:
Sunny: [The solution is] managed pilgrimages and tourism in all ecologically sensitive zones. Once allowed, no second visit till slots are available – a bit like Bhutan and Arunachal [Pradesh]. I would add a "lottery system" instead of "high-value" for pilgrimages. Other kinds of tourism can be hybrid and only allowed in community-owned set-ups.
Some proposed measures:
1. Regulating the number of tourists allowed in certain areas will reduce the pressure on natural environments caused by tourism.
2. The promotion of alternative fuel-saving technologies can help reduce the use of firewood by tourist lodges.
3. The creation of designated campsites that offer certain amenities (washing facilities, for example) will help reduce the amount of wild-camping along the trails.
4. Creating community-based tourism that willallow local residents to take part in decision-making process and, at the same time, elicit their support and co-operation for environmental protection projects. Likewise, other Himalayan states can put in place the policy that Bhutan follows, which is: "High Value, Low Volume". Its means to bring in a smaller number of high-end tourists, and this will help reduce the environmental impact of mass tourism.
These strategies will help reduce the environmental impact caused by tourism in the Himalayas. Modern approaches like these can help reduce the negative effect of tourism and allow both tourist and local population to benefit from "Sustainable Tourism."
Tushar Kumar argues: Forget the lottery system. By an ordinance make the Char Dham Yatra "by foot only as they used to in the old days.
Sunny suggests charging a "pilgrim tax" to spend on building sustainable systems. Indian temples already have huge cash reserves, which they don't use well. Every temple society that wants public funds should have members who pay annually and have a religious-sabha and a management sabha, both elected by devotees.
Consider this Wikipedia entry on the Char Dham Yatra:
"Accessible until 1950s only by arduous and lengthy walking trails in hilly area with height repeatedly exceeded 4,000 meters, the Chota Char Dham was regularly done by wandering ascetics and other religious professionals, and those who could afford a traveling entourage. While the individual sites and the circuit as a whole were well known to Hindus on the plains below, they were not a particularly visible aspect of yearly religious culture. After the 1962 war between India and China, accessibility to the Chota Char Dham improved, as India undertook massive road building to border area and other infrastructure investments. As pilgrims were able to travel in mini buses, jeeps and cares to nearest points of four shrines, the Chota Char dham circuit was within the reach of people with middle income. Vehicles reach upto Badrinath temple and Gangotri,Yamunotri and Kedarnath are at a distance of 10 to 15 k.m. from nearest motorable road."
Source: Wikipedia
Tushar Kumar alludes to data available with the Uttarakhand State Transport Department cited in a Down to Earth magazine article, which confirms that in 2005-06, 83,000-odd vehicles were registered in the state. The figure rose to nearly 180,000 in 2012-13. Out of this, proportion of cars, jeeps and taxis, which are the most preferred means of transport for tourists landing in the state, increased the most. In 2005-06, 4,000 such vehicles were registered, which jumped to 40,000 in 2012-13—a whopping 1000 per cent increase. It is an established fact that there is a straight co-relation between tourism increase and higher incidence of landslides.
Tushar wonders how many vehicles enter Uttarakhand from outside the state during the pilgrim season? That data is unavailable.
Digvijay Singh is furious about the attitude towards pilgrimages that resemble commercialized picnics. Most pilgrimage centres, he argues, were situated in inaccessible areas so that only those really inclined could go there.
Sunny intervenes, saying that the reduction of vehicles is essential. He wonders if the pressure can be reduced by limiting public transport and increasing the use of conventional transport such as horses and mules. He muses over Gandhi’s observation that connective technologies such as railways are a necessary evil. Gandhi said, “I am not aiming at destroying railways or hospitals, though I would certainly welcome their natural destruction. Neither railways nor hospitals are a test of a high and pure civilization. At best they are a necessary evil. Neither adds one inch to the moral stature of a nation. Nor am I aiming at a permanent destruction of law courts, much as I regard it as a 'consummation devoutly to be wished'. Still less am I trying to destroy all machinery and mills. It requires a higher simplicity and renunciation than the people are today prepared for.”
Tushar Kumar recollects that his maternal grandfather in Bombay went on a Char Dham Yatra in the 1930s and returned after six months. Even today, he says, thousands of faithful pilgrims do the arduous yatra on foot. Ironically, the trekking trails that have been used for thousands of years across these dhams are still intact. These paths should be once again revived.
“Look at the photographs of the Kedarnath temple,” laments Tushar. “It is surrounded by shanties, makeshift tin housing or concrete structures that are not meant to be where they are located. All pilgrims suffer due to their religious sentiments and also obsession with this yatra. In fact, suffering and hardship are measures of devotion.”
Debadideb Datta agrees. “There is a reason why most of these shrines are located in remote, inaccessible areas. The journey was as important as the destination. It offers opportunity for isolation, introspection and cleansing. And the 'energy' of the place is hard preserve when thousands of tourists are doing their 1.5-second darshan every day.”
Arvind Saluja points out that places of pilgrimage and historical monuments are infested with thugs and touts and are ignored by the authorities.
Harpreet Singh points the finger at authorities who approve such constructions to make a quick buck without a thought for the consequences. Regulation by authority is going to be tricky, agrees Debadideb Datta, and echoes Harpreet’s fears. Keeping pilgrimage sites remote and inaccessible may achieve more ends more easily, he opines.
Sunny, alluding to an April 2012 report in the Times of India, hails the new move by the Ministry of External Affairs that limits travel on the Kailash-Manasarovar pilgrimage to first-timers only.
Besides limiting easy access, Digvijay pleads for a restriction on what pilgrims are allowed to do at these holy sites. For instance, immersing the ashes of the dead in the Ganges. He suggests that only a minuscule symbolic amount be allowed for immersion.
Tushar points out in the same vein that rampant sand mining along Himalayan rivers is probably a bigger scam than 2G.
Satyakam Sudershan disagrees. “Of the troubles that afflict the Ganga and the hills, only a miniscule proportion are due to religious tourism and activity,” he argues. “The far bigger problems are mining, timber and dams on hills...It is just fashionable these days to point [fingers] at religious activity and tut-tut when that is not even in the picture. Sort of like turning lights off on Earth Day, or saying Holi should not be played to conserve water in Maharashtra to help the drought conditions.”
Tushar Kumar wonders: “If going by the records, this is the earliest monsoon and/or heaviest rainfall in 52 years (not sure of the exact number, but that is a moot point), then logically, 52 years ago, there would have been almost as much rain. Yet, why were there no devastating landslides that obliterated villages then or killed so many hundreds of people? Why this is happening now?”
Sunny, addressing Satyakam’s concern, blames the scale of tourism, both religious and otherwise. “Big roads , construction booms with huge complexes , dams, sand-mining , forest-fires due to chir plantations -- there is lot of unsustainable activity. It has all reached its extreme limits. We need a Himalayan Eco-System Management strategy, which looks at everything starting from the local people. There was a saying for years in Vaishno Devi that the Mata hated helicopters, and that is why they crashed.
Satyakam Sudershan, agreeing with Sunny, warns against the inadvertent elitism that often pervades our activism. He observes that the ‘English-speaking, self-loathing elite’ have pushed forth the impression that concrete buildings are great and fire-baked mud houses are silly, that it is cool to have a lifestyle with a large footprint, and travel to exotic places for amusement and that “a large bank balance means a better person.”  These attitudes, he worries, have rubbed off on the local people in Uttarakhand. “We first go all out to destroy all the basic things that were part of our heritage and wonder why things are going downhill when many other Indians follow the same behavior,” he says.
Debadideb Datta and Sunny agree but wonder how we can undo the damage done.
Tushar Kumar observes: “The hills in summer have a floating population of tourists that is hundreds of times (if not more) than that of locals.”
Sunny Narang echoes Debadideb in mooting a concept of a Sustainable State – Strategic and Spiritual – where innovation and creativity aims for strength and sustainability with sensible use of resources.
While stupefied before images of a rainfall and river in a tearing hurry, conversations within families, friends and those who are numbed can be opened. While you have your own, if you’d like to see the original post and follow the unabridged conversation do click at: https://www.facebook.com/shwahoom

Also see
Fast and the Furious: North India's Monsoon Fury