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Uttarakhand is called Devbhumi—abode of the gods. But after hibernating in the cool, quiet winter months with the soothing snow as cover, the mountains must be quaking in their depths when it’s time for the char dham yatra. When those groups of youths with bright red tilaks on their foreheads, some with swords and trishuls, their unkempt hair tied in saffron bandanas roar on their motorbikes shouting Jai Shiv, Hari, Hari on the fragile dusty roads up from Rishiskesh. When families spilling out of Tata Sumos and Mahindra Boleros, racing with each other, pushing all the other vehicles off the road, leaving a trail of Lays Chips packets, gutka pouches and plastic bottles in their wake, head towards Uttarkashi or Joshimath. When all of them who have bought a flat in those River View and Ganga Darshan highrises in Haridwar and beyond come to claim their summer days. When the hills reverberate with the cry of the yatris.
This is not to blame the pilgrims for the present calamity in Uttarakhand. There have been unheard of torrential rains, cloudbursts and flash floods this year. But natural disasters will happen—hurricanes hit New York and earthquakes make Tokyo tremble—we can only be prepared, and plan. That horrifying, if arresting, TV footage of a building crumbling into the raging Mandakini could perhaps have been avoided if the builder of a four-floor structure on the river bank, caged-in with other buildings and standing on what looked like shaky stilts, had been asked to follow rules. If the trees had not been chopped and the timber smuggled out, the blow from the cloud bursts may have been softer. If the mining and stone quarrying along the Ganga had not been so mindless and large-scale, the river may have been less furious and not engulfed entire villages and towns. If the planning for the yatra had been done in earnest, so many people would not have lost their lives or left stranded.
When the tiny state got its aadhar card over a decade ago from being an outpost of mighty Uttar Pradesh, there was hope that it would be managed better. But there has only been more confusion—starting from its name. At first, all vehicle number plates and government/institution name boards changed from UP to UA, or Uttaranchal. In about a year, they all changed from UA to UK, as after much deliberation, the state took the original agitationists’ name, Uttarakhand. Still in its formative years, it has had seven CMs, including the redoubtable N.D. Tiwari, and a flip-flop of BJP and Congress governments. In the last assembly polls the mystery lingered till the end if it would be a BJP or a Congress CM. With this kind of a political churn, the char dham yatra—Yamunotri, Gangotri, Badrinath, Kedarnath—lies in the hands of private tour operators who target as many trips as possible before the season ends. The pilgrims, many from faraway south and west India, are at their mercy. Last year, an estimated seven-eight million pilgrims visited Kedarnath. New hotels and dharamshalas come up every year, each looking more spidery. Vehicles are parked on either side of the highway for about five kilometres before you enter Gangotri. During the yatra days, the main town square in Uttarkashi resembles Churchgate station at 6 pm. If spirituality and serenity are what the yatris are looking for, as for many of them it’s a once-in-a-lifetime journey, they may find a food court in a city mall more tranquil. This yatra buzz is on the Garhwal side of Uttarakhand, along the Ganga right from Haridwar to Gangotri, and to Kedarnath and Badrinath. In fact, many in Kumaon say their region is relatively better off as there are no major dhams there. Well, the gods will live where they have to, it is in our hands to tread gently when we go visiting them, to show true respect and some humility to the mountains, the trees, the forests, the rivers, the lakes, the flowers, the birds, the animals, the snow, the glaciers—everything that surrounds them.