Uttarakhand Tourism: Recipe for disaster
Calamity is a wrath of nature but the devastation and loss of lives that followed is certainly manmade
Akash Bisht Delhi
The Uttarakhand floods have claimed over a hundred lives and thousands are stranded, waiting to be rescued from the monsoon fury. The images of swelled up muddy rivers, bringing down high rises like a pack of cards, and washing away everything in its way, is just a brutal reminder of the power of nature. Calamity is a wrath of nature but the devastation and loss of lives that follow are certainly manmade, and successive state governments are to be blamed for this. Inundated in the tourism money that has been filling their coffers ever since Uttarakhand was carved out of Uttar Pradesh, the state government had turned a blind eye towards the ecological impact of its mindless tourism.
Soon after the formation of Uttarakhand, politicians across the spectrum realised the great potential the state had in becoming a major tourist destination. Considering its proximity to the national capital, the weekend revellers soon found Uttarakhand to be the destination to beat the heat. Plus, the religious tourists found it much easier to travel to-not-so accessible Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and other shrines in their Toyota Innovas, stopping at several makeshift dhabas, relishing Maggi and tea. It was a divine experience for the tourists who were awe struck by the beauty of the Himalayas.
However, this magical experience was marred by roadblocks and tourists routinely complained about the bad roads and how it affected their travel time. These complaints made the government wary who decided to widen the roads to accommodate the tsunami of tourists. Considering the fragility of these mountains – Himalayas are the youngest of the mountain ranges in the world with very poor soil stability – the roads would routinely cave in or get washed away during monsoons. But, none of this bothered the governments who went ahead with this ambitious project of turning Uttarakhand into a Las Vegas of spirituality. The rising tourism industry lured the land sharks and they erected multi-storied hotels, flouting all environmental norms. Thousands of such resorts and hotels have mushroomed in this eco-sensitive zone in the last few years. Some of these hotels were built on banks of several small and big rivers just to give the tourist a bird’s eye view of the pristine river flowing through the valley.
Rishikesh is a classic example of all wrongs with the tourism industry of Uttarakhand. Several high end hotels are either on the Ganga riverbed or in the pristine forests, to give the tourists a divine experience and a room with a beautiful view. Moreover, if one goes by the earlier records, it is seen that most of the floodplains of these rivers have been encroached by land mafias and ashrams. Experts concede that there is nothing unnatural about these floods as rivers are reclaiming what is rightfully theirs. Landslides, flash floods, cloud bursts, earthquakes have been a part of the Uttarkhand’s legacy and people of the hills have braved them for centuries.
None of this was reported earlier, but what made headlines this time was the sheer number of that were stranded in these parts. No one in the mainstream media has raised the point as to how so many tourists were allowed in such fragile landscape that is vulnerable to natural calamities.
Images of vehicular traffic on roads leading to these shrines are a case in point. Plus, there were no early warnings of such heavy rains and possible flash floods. Flash floods, landslides, swelled-up rivers is not something new, but what turned these natural phenomenon into disaster is the insatiable greed of the very few who thought of cashing in from this lucrative industry. There has been a spike of nearly 1000 per cent in the number of vehicles registered in the state in the last few years. Similarly, the number of hotels has also seen a similar rise in the recent past. For example, Kedarnath Valley has hundreds of such hotels that were vulnerable to these natural calamities. So, when flash floods struck the valley, many of these hotels swept away and so did the people staying in them.
So the question arises that why does not the government regulate tourism and bring down the illegal construction that has wreaked havoc on this ecological hotspot? We can only hope that the state government learns a lesson from this tragedy and realises how crucial it is to put certain restrictions on tourism. Otherwise, many more lives would be lost in trying to make profits out of this extremely fragile ecosphere.
Meanwhile, Congress President Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did an aerial survey of the affected areas and noticed that a huge loss of property and lives have taken place. Sonia Gandhi is expected to visit the relief camps and affected area in near future. Addressing the media, Minister of State for Home Affairs, RPN Singh said there was great challenge for the armed forces as well as for the para-military forces over the last two days for the rescue operations due to bad weather. “Fortunately, for us, the weather has become better. We have managed to press 22 helicopters today into service to rescue the people who have been stuck in the places where they could not be reached by foot or by vehicle. Twenty two helicopters have been pressed into service and have been evacuating people who are stuck in various regions of in and around Kedarnath. Many people have been rescued and we will have the final report for the day at 5 pm in the evening. More than 2000-3000 people have already been evacuated by helicopters. Where the food cannot be reached, the same has been air-dropped. We have over 13 teams of NDRF with all paraphernalia who are trying to rescue the people,” he said.