Yet another road accident on the Char Dham route in Uttarakhand on June 15 near Rudraprayag shook our collective conscience. Fourteen people died as the Chopta-bound tempo traveler fell into the Alaknanda river on the Badrinath national highway. Such accidents are far too commonplace on this Himalayan route that provides passage to devotees, agnostics, and seekers of divinity and spirituality.

Estimates indicate a phenomenal rise — from nine to 15 lakh — in the number of people who undertake the yatra to the four pilgrimage sites of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath. In 2023, the number of pilgrims crossed 50 lakh and the number of accidental deaths was two hundred, as per the Uttarakhand State Emergency Control Center. Despite the claim of the best preparations by the Uttarakhand state machinery, there is a need to reflect and take stock. Or shall we simply deem these deaths accidental and let it be?

The Char Dham Yatra route is spread over 1,600 km. Along it, there are several places that have inspired poetry, including by Rabindranath Tagore, and religious and spiritual harmony. However, the spiritual and social liberation that was the core of the Char Dham Yatra is in danger. A particular idea of ​​development, with strong political backing, is threatening the essence of the Yatra. Hence, we must ask: Do the regular road accidents, in part, stem from an inappropriate model of development?

There is much that causes apprehension as soon as one sets out from Haridwar. The adverse effects of deforestation and hill-cutting along the widened road meet our eyes. The warning signs across the highways about stones falling from the slopes are dreadful greetings. With the successful opening of the Char Dham Circuit, the number of vehicles plying on the route has increased by leaps and bounds. Traffic congestion is the new normal. An unbridled tourism industry, despite attempts by the state to regulate it, cares little about safety, let alone the broader spiritual and ecological question. The liquor marts are present at places where they were unimaginable earlier.

Even though it is a different terrain, the standard of vehicle speed applicable in the plains seems to have been applied to the hills. This, of course, is part of “developmentality” — time is money and consumption is the new religion. Inebriated on Instagram, the visitors (once pilgrims) are consumers and the locals are service-sellers. The once less transactional, more human relationship between pilgrims and people in the mountains has changed. The whole circuit is meant to provide the optics of development success.

Festive offer

Granting permission for the Char Dham project to the government, the Supreme Court verdict in December 2021 underlined the need to balance India’s defense needs and sustainable development in the Himalayas. While the roads were to be widened, this had to be done without making environmental compromises. However, before this verdict, a High Powered Committee appointed by the Supreme Court of India in 2019 reported that the project had many adverse implications for the Himalayan region.

Environmental damage as a result of the loss of trees and essential green cover, destruction of water springs and erosion of topsoil were underlined by the committee. The construction work along the circuit has made Himalayan slopes more fragile, putting humans at risk — from accidents and natural calamities. Carbon emissions have increased and now appear to pose a threat to the glaciers in the high Himalayas and the flora and fauna in the foothills. No wonder, between 2018-2020 there were approximately 34 major landslides in addition to road accidents and tunnel collapses.

This is most certainly not the balance between defense and sustainable development that the honorable Supreme Court had emphasized in its ruling. The current path of development could well be disastrous. A course correction is needed. An approach to development that can protect the devbhoomi, the Himalayan abode of the divine, must be adopted.

The writer is associate professor, Department of Sociology, South Asian University