Be it tourism or pilgrimage – time, energy, money and resources spent on it are not really justified if one is unable to relax and enjoy, and gets back home traumatised, drained out and tired.
Weekend tourism has been trending, but then the concept seems getting extended to pilgrimage as well.
All weather road project of MORTH has certainly made access to the Char Dham effortless, and one starting from Delhi in the dawn is comfortably hitting her destination even before sunset – from scorching hot near 48-49o C in North Indian plains to cold weather conditions gaining an altitude of more than 3 km.
In this mad rush to reach the destination one really provides no opportunity to her body and mind to relax and enjoy the scenic beauty – leave apart time for adjusting and acclimatising to drastically changed weather and atmospheric conditions.
This is sure to take its toll.
This is certainly taking its toll and the same is evident from the casualty figures of pilgrims around Char Dham.
Till the evening of May 19 these shrines have been visited by 130855, 106352, 236669 and 1952779 persons respectively, while the cumulative death count stands at 48.
As is expected Kedarnath and Yamunotri account for most deaths (75%) and this is attributed to physical exertion pilgrims have to undertake while trekking for almost 16 and 6 km respectively along arduous mountainous terrain. High altitude and physical exertion takes its toll and one is soon short of breath, and her heart and lung have to put in extra effort to maintain required oxygen levels.
Majority of the victims (75%) have been males of which majority (33.3%) fall in 61-65 year age group and 25% each in 55-60 year and below 55 year age group. Amongst the females 58.3% are in 55-65 year age bracket.
Most deaths have been attributed to heart failure, and large proportion reportedly suffered from co-morbidity. Large proportion have also been reportedly infected with COVID-19, and post-recovery complications could well be attributed to their death.
Unfortunately, most victims could not make it to the medical care units put up en route by the state.
Value for money and time
Whatever the statistics, be it sightseeing, spiritualism or pilgrimage – one coming over generally spends money, time, energy and resources to relax and enjoy the scenic beauty, rather than just have a quick darshan and retreat.
I am really not sure if this mad rush provides any opportunity to relax and enjoy, and if one gets back home tired and drained out the very purpose of one’s coming over to the hills is defeated.
In such a case it would be hard to justify money, time and resources spent on all this.
Apart from wastage of resources and time as also trauma of the next of kin of the deceased persons, human death count during the pilgrimage provides media a sought after opportunity to target the government for lacking arrangements and being insensitive.
It at the same time brands the state as being unsafe destination in the subconscious mind of millions, and the same is detrimental to both the image and commercial prospects of both people and the state.
Limiting darshan: On its part, based on the logistics capacity, the state has restricted the number of persons visiting the shrines daily – 16000 for Badrinath, 13000 for Kedarnath, 8000 for Gangotri and 5000 for Yamunorti and ones coming without registration are not being allowed and asked to wait.
Withholding pilgrims without registration sounds like a good idea for crowd control but then one needs to appreciate that majority of the pilgrims come from lower socioeconomic strata and venture out for Char Dham Yatra under religious furore, and do not have enough resources to extend their planned journey. Making them overstay or return without darshan could cause law and order problems besides maligning the image of the state. The solution has therefore to be sought in restricting them at the source only.
Practical and viable options of engaging these people have thus to be worked out to ensure that they are not antagonised as word of mouth negative publicity could have adverse impact on tourism industry as also economy of the state.
Traffic regulation: The vehicular traffic is also not being allowed between 10 PM and 4 AM.
The pilgrimage route however has multiple entry points and habitations till the very end, which make policing difficult. And then policing on busy route with little or no staging facility has its accompanying fallouts.
But then doing so for one and all is neither feasible nor practical, and it only adds to the burden of limited medical professionals available in these remote locations.
Based on the previous trend one can access that the pilgrimage is yet to peak as the summer vacations of schools and collages have not yet commenced.
Moreover the present trend suggests that Kedarnath is to witness major rush.
Lastly the inflow of pilgrims is to drop with the onset on monsoonal rains.
Mandatory fitness certificate: Together with awareness drive in collaboration with the state governments of the potential pilgrims as also major tour operators, provision of Health Fitness Certificate is advised as being made mandatory for Char Dham Yatra registration – at least for all persons above a certain age – say 60 years.
Most people have so far been accustomed to mandatory COVID vaccination certificate and would be happy to comply with the same if it eases their pilgrimage.
The benefits of having registration with Health Fitness Certificate can thus be highlighted in bold and capitals – seamless unrestricted passage is always a big incentive.
This would discourage medically unfit persons from venturing for pilgrimage, which in turn would relieve scarce local medical practitioners from the burden of routine health checkups, and provide them opportunity of effectively contributing to addressing to emergencies.
This is sure to reduce the death count and help boost the image of the state as being a safe destination.
This would be particularly helpful in Hemkund Sahib pilgrimage that takes people to an even higher altitude of 4633 m, and where one has to trek for arduous 16 km.
Really speaking, Char Dham does not require publicity.
You really don’t need to put up billboards for selling nariyal or paan-supari. These have an inbuilt marketing strategy of their own and the same has been successful over generations through an appeal to great tradition of the people.
The department thus requires to focus on other destinations of the state – religious, adventure sports or secular – particularly on the Char Dham Yatra route. And the advertising has to be real aggressively with solid branding.
As most people are religiously charged – appeal could be made to visit these before paying tribute at the main shrines. Doing so can easily be advertised as facilitating fulfilment of wishes and even salvation, and related to some tradition.
This is sure to divert people to these destinations, and this in turn would provide pilgrims’ opportunity to acclimatise. This is sure to reduce the death toll on Char Dham Yatra route.
Reducing time: During previous years vehicular traffic was disallowed between 8 PM and 6 AM. The state could therefore consider restricting traffic accordingly, and this in turn would enhance travel time to Char Dham destinations that in turn would provide pilgrims’ time to adjust to changed weather parameters.
Gearing up: Media and others have so far brought forth many a shortcomings in the arrangements made by the state – state of sanitation and hygiene, overpricing and others. Taking these in a positive spirit necessary corrective measures are required to be introduced before the pilgrimage peaks again.
Local beneficiaries are also required to be sensitized as being brand ambassadors of the state so that they do not engage in short term exploitative business practices.
Long term measures
Sanitation and hygiene: The state of sanitation and hygiene, particularly around temporary toilets put up at huge cost has always been questionable. There is really no time for putting the house in order during this season but then permanent toilet facilities should be created near perennial water sources with adequate parking facility.
Local flavour: Facilitating access to hygienic and delicious food with a twist of local flavour is sure to boost local economy, and efforts are required to be put in by the state by way or training, financing and supporting local entrepreneurs, particularly youth.
Smooth vehicular passage: Putting in place provision of automated confirmation of registration of both vehicles and pilgrims would help avoid traffic jam, and smoothen vehicular movement.
Disaster risk reduction: Slight rainfall in the previous days disrupted both Badrinath and Kedarnath routes on May 16, 2022, though for just a few hours and then on May 19, 2022 Yamunotri route was disrupted.
These incidences were fortunately not associated with any mishap. We can however not expect to be that lucky every time when the hill slope crumbles down.
Taking lead from these detailed landslide risk assessment of the pilgrimage route needs to be undertaken with the involvement of trained and experienced geologists, with an aim of treating identified chronic slide zones in a phased manner.
Besides ensuring safe and hassle free pilgrimage, this would relieve the local administration from the burden of managing the stranded pilgrims.
Souvenirs and gifts: So far the state has failed to brand any product as being something the visitor mandatorily carries home as a Souvenir. Doing so and aggressively marketing the same would not only boost the economy of the region but also provide gainful employment opportunities to large number of people.
Hope the overview motivates readers coming over for pilgrimage to fully enjoy their stay in Uttarakhand, while the suggestions help ramp up preparations and boost the image of the state as being a tourist friendly and safe destination.