It is mid May and the highly advertised Char Dham Yatra has just begun in Uttarakhand. However, like last year and the year before that, the pilgrimage to the holiest shrines of Hinduism has been stalled due to bad weather. Huge landslides have blocked the arterial roads leading up to these sites, just as they did in the previous two years. Thousands of pilgrims are reported trapped among the mountains. Not just the Nandprayag-Chamoli road on the Badrinath highway, but some 284 roads in all have had to be closed after heavy unseasonal downpours.

At the time of writing this piece, almost half of these roads are still yet to reopen. And mind you, this is supposed to be the dry season in the hills. The real monsoon rains are yet to come later in June.

By now, few will contest that we are living in an era of acute ecological emergency. Familiar weather patterns no longer exist, and sudden storms, landslides, droughts or floods are wrecking lives the world over. The young state of Uttarakhand is no exception. In December 2012, a notification by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests declared the watershed area between Gaumukh and Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand as ecologically and seismologically a highly sensitive zone. Under the 1986 Environmental Protection Act, this notification forbade any mining and construction activity in this area, even work on the ongoing hydro-power projects along the Bhagirathi river. But the notification is being observed more in the breach.

Since spring, the Uttarakhand government has been aggressively advertising pilgrimage packages to the fabled Char Dham – the Kedarnath-Badrinath-Gangotri-Yamunotri circuit. Its department of tourism, along with travel agents and hoteliers are offering multiple packages online for these most sought after pilgrimage spots.

As soon as the Kedarnath shrine opened to visitors earlier this month after its annual winter closure, on the very first day it opened, no less a personage than Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew in, in full glare of the media. Newly-appointed Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat followed. He lost no time in signalling that all was well, and that this Dev Bhoomi, the abode of the gods, welcomed both pilgrims and summer tourists.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Kedarnath on May 3. (Photo credit:

An innocent time

In earlier years, the older brand of traditional pilgrims – mostly ascetics, widows and ageing couples from all over India – approached the Himalayas in a spirit of humility and awe. As these pilgrims moved from Yamunotri to Gangotri to Kedarnath and then Badrinath, they would treat the flora and fauna they came across with extreme reverence, discovering the divine in nature (as the saying goes – kankar kankar mein Shankar, or, there is Shiva in each pebble). The original shrines built by the ancient ascetics and kings like the Pandavas are long gone. The ones we have today were renovated or rebuilt several times during the medieval period by the Shankaracharya or by royal houses like the kings of Tehri, the Holkars and the Scindias. These were simple but sturdy structures to which, of late, has been added gloss and glitter of the kind my generation, which grew up in the mountains, is unfamiliar with.

Of late, as religion has become the badge of one’s proximity to power, not just politicians, but wealthy traders, brewery owners, hoteliers, builders and contractors go on the Char Dham yatra as often as possible. This India with its new wealth and aspirational middle classes has begun putting an intolerable strain on the finite resources of Uttarakhand thanks to myopic industrialisation, haphazard urbanisation and the aggressive marketing of tourism.

The new tourists thronging Uttarakhand’s holy spots come in search of adventure, driven not so much by faith as by superstition. And boy, do they have money to spend. They arrive in SUVs and private cars, or in chartered air-conditioned buses, blaring songs from the latest Bollywood hit. The taxi and bus drivers obligingly stop along the way for these travellers to take selfies or grab a quick chilled beer. As they leave, loudly chanting “Bum Bum Bholey” or “Jai Mata Di!” these tourists leave behind heaps of garbage, stressed roads in a state of a near collapse, springs and rivers choking with plastic, and local residents flush with cash.

People look at a collapsed road and the flooded river in Uttarakhand in June 2013. (Photo credit: AFP).

Between 2005-’06, the state, with a population of 10 million, had 83,000 registered vehicles and 4,000 more to transport tourists. Between 2012-’13 these numbers swelled to 1,80,000 and 40,000 respectively. On June 16, 2013, the Char Dham Yatra brought 17,000 tourists to Kedarnath town, which has a population of 500. You get the drift. But the supporters of the new developmental strategies of the government say tourists bring in big money to develop the state – to build more roads to ease traffic, to widen existing roads, and to build precious dams and better hotels and lodges for visitors. Between 2013-’14, they will tell you proudly that tourism alone generated business worth Rs 23,000 cores. Such cost benefit analysis is tricky business, mixing as it does empirical science with human values (read values shared by the ruling dispensation and its bureaucrats, most of whom have built lavish summer homes in the region for themselves).

Not holistic development

If your aesthetics happen to be incontestably poor, and your social concerns even more so, you might still happily overlook the mounds of garbage and stench in the areas where those who belong to the hills are forced to live, as well as how polluted the focus of pilgrims’ veneration – the Char Dham – have become, how fast glaciers in the region are receding and how congested and uninhabitable the cities in the foothills have become in the last two decades.

In the national mythology, the quintessential Indian experience for heroes and saints – from the Pandavas to Adi Shankaracharya to the Gandhian Kaka Sahib Kalelkar – was to leave everything behind to arrive in a wild and challenging place, to accept and adjust to their new surroundings and make it their spiritual, but borrowed, home.

The idea to sell packaged tours to the Char Dhams reveals a totally new mindset. In the true sense, to a pilgrim, a dham is but a teerth – an awesome place the faithful visit painstakingly and temporarily where they cross over from the physical to the spiritual (the root tri means to swim over to the other side). It is not an abode where pilgrims camp like tourists and demand services they are used to in their daily lives.

To a large extent, it is the government that encouraged the erasing of the original patterns of pilgrimage From the beginning, each successive government – first the Congress and then the BJP – has talked of holistic (samagra) development (vikas) but has secretly lusted after the money that can be generated by harnessing the waters of the holy rivers to generate hydro-electric power, and by creating attractive deals for wealthy investors and pilgrims who have grown exponentially after the new Hindutva went viral.

Delhi had no objection to this either during the previous United Progressive Alliance government, or now. In the government’s imagination, water harnessed for power, and commercially-packaged religion are both fantastic opportunities to marry the ideological with the practical. The logic is that the money that will come from selling electricity and pilgrimage packages alone can turn this barely habitable land into a settled heaven for the newly-emerging middle classes. This will also generate employment for the highlanders, always cribbing about how the pahadi (hill) youth and the waters of the hills have always benefited others.

In June 2013, a cloudburst above Kedarnath in Uttarakhand caused devastating floods and landslides, killing at least 4,000 local residents and pilgrims in the state. (Photo credit: AFP).

Money matters

For politicians, the aggressive branding of Uttarakhand as Dev Bhoomi will produce a continuous supply of money from what they consider to be a limitless supply of its plentiful waters and remote shrines, which only penniless groups of ascetics or aged couples travelling on shoestring budgets visited so far. The advertisements now offer air-conditioned lodges in the holy sites located in the foothills, and heated rooms and running hot water to those who drive further up the mountains.

Thus, there has been an enormous burst of commercial activity in Uttarakhand. The signs of it are visible as soon as you enter Roorkee, go on to Haridwar, Rishikesh, onwards to hill stations like Nainital, Mussoorie, Ranikhet and Mukteshwar, and to the tiny towns near the four holy Dhams, all of them overbuilt and groaning under the press of visitors. Add to this the various moneyed outsiders – the politicians and bureaucrats, the contractors and builders, and corporate executives – who have had rules bent to build summer cottages high up in delicate mountain areas, and along river beds, and have cut down precious trees, polluted the rivers and lakes and natural streams.

“Heh, heh. You locals have no roots left,” one of them joked to me. “You all migrated to the plains so we have had to come to live in your UK [Uttarakhand] and keep things going you see. Life is tough here, but you can still hire the locals to do the rough work for you. They need the money yaar, since so many of them have sold their land and you all have migrated.”

During Margaret Thatcher’s rule in the other UK, Norman Tebbit, her Secretary of State for employment, raised a furore when he advised the unemployed in England to get onto their bikes and look for work elsewhere. Today some 3,000 villages lie derelict in Uttarakhand, all its inhabitants having migrated. Schools are turning into ruins for the lack of students, and thousands of villages have as residents only ageing and/or indigent widows. No one, least of all the state government, gives a damn. Those who are left spend their days fearing for their lives, and praying to their local gods and goddesses – Garjiya Devi, Bhumiya, Khetrapal Bhadan and Jimdar – to grant them protection from hailstorms and landslides, a protection they have long ceased asking their governments for.

Since religion is the new desh bhakti, Nehruvian socialism is almost a cuss word and governments seems to prefer the Thatcherite line on governance, it is hard to predict what will finally happen to Uttarakhand. But major disasters like the cloudburst near the Kedarnath shrine in 2013 that led to flash floods and landslides in which at least 4,000 people were killed, as well as frequent landslides along the pilgrimage routes make it amply clear that a population of millions cannot pursue a lifestyle devoted to seclusion, spiritualism and the picturesque without ultimately undermining those very same things.