In the last few days, there has been a lot of discussion on the social media and in the news about the plastic pollution spread in Kedarnath. From the pictures that came, it seems that devotees going to Kedarnath threw plastic bottles and things in large quantities there. A photo of a car parking lot in Sonprayag, where thousands of vehicles carrying pilgrims going to Kedarnath and Badrinath were engaged. You will not get to see such parking in Delhi-Mumbai too soon. There is also a traffic jam of Sonprayag in the news, people are taking hours to walk just one kilometer. Due to this, air pollution has also increased in the nearest city of Kedarnath-Badrinath.
This situation of Chardham Yatra is very worrying. Environmentalists and scientists believe that the rapid increase in the number of devotees at religious places is unsustainable. So today it is necessary to discuss how many people can visit religious places built in such places. How to control the departure of people, and what will that number be? Today some 12 to 13 thousand devotees visit Kedarnath every day. How can we reduce this number?
Before proceeding with the discussion, it would be better to take a look at its background. Which are very sensitive places, such as Amarnath, Kedarnath or Gangotri-Yamunotri, their environment is changing. Take only Amarnath, in the last few years we have seen that the glaciers around the temple are getting affected a lot due to global warming and crowd of devotees. Due to this the size of the iconic Shivling present in the Amarnath cave is continuously decreasing. Sometimes it melts completely before the journey is over. This is being seen for the last ten years. If the situation continues like this, in a few decades it will happen that if the devotees will go there, but there will be no Shivling to offer prayers.
This is a very good example to tell how the number of devotees and global warming is affecting our religious places. Global warming is a global issue, the whole world needs to work on it. But we can save our religious places by controlling the environment and the number of devotees. The way concrete buildings are being built there, it is a matter of playing with a very sensitive eco-system. The parking at Sonprayag is built on the banks of the Mandakini river. You will remember how there was a severe flood in Kedarnath in 2013, in which thousands of people died. Tomorrow, if there is a flood in Mandakini, all the car parking there will be destroyed, it is certain.
Carrying capacity study is done to know the limit of the number of pilgrims. Just as every person has a carrying capacity, so does every place. This
Capacity depends on how much water there is in that place, how is the air, how is the temperature, how is the forest in that channel, how is the land. The Geography Department of Kashmir University studied the carrying capacity of the entire Lenter Valley of Amarnath. In it, he had seen how much water there is, how can the human excreta and urine be disposed of. How much plastic and waste can be managed? He found that four to four and a half thousand pilgrims can go to Amarnath daily. More than twenty thousand people have registered for this year’s Amarnath Yatra. Often this number reaches into the millions. Now if we want to save Chardham, then the number of passengers there will have to be reduced by less than one third immediately.
One can question that in this way you are violating the rights of religious freedom of the people. The second question will be that if we reduce the number, then the rich will go and the poor will not be able to go. But there are solutions for this. The first thing is that even today the numbers are controlled in Char Dham. For that you have to register. Ten to twelve thousand people can go to Amarnath, some sixteen thousand to Kedarnath-Badrinath and five thousand to Yamunotri and Hemkund Sahib daily. The government still controls the numbers. But the point is that the number of people that are allowed today is unsustainable. Even with this number, the environment here will deteriorate very fast.
The second question is of rich and poor, then for the poor, we can do that half of the quota there should be for the economically weaker section, and the remaining half should be for the moneyed. If rich people want to visit Amarnath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri or Gangotri, then give more money. With that money, the economically weaker section can be subsidized there. This is not a new policy. This is our economic policy. Even today the rich pay more tax, the poor pay less. Even today, money is transferred to the poor in the bank, whether it is any kind of subsidy money or any other welfare scheme.
learn from Bhutan
Such things are coming in the tourism policy of countries all over the world. Our neighboring country Bhutan is a good example of this. To enter Bhutan, fifteen to twenty thousand rupees have to be paid for sustainable development. Bhutan is saving its environment in this way. We need to learn from Bhutan, we can do better than that. We also control the numbers, charge fees for sustainable development, and save the environment there, then only Chardham will be truly Chardham. Otherwise it is only a matter of few years, everything will be bad.
(The author is CEO of i-Forest)
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are those of the author.