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| Last Updated:: 16/06/2016

The cost of a pilgrimage








Three years ago, on this day (16 June), the peaceful valleys of Uttrakhand experienced one of the worst catastrophes in its history. The region witnessed a sudden cloudburst, which caused devastating floods. It affected 4,200 villages and claimed 5,748 lives in Dehradun, Uttarkashi, Rishikesh, Pithoragarh and Rudraprayag. Tourists and locals were stranded for days as roads were severely damaged, while homes and cars were washed away in rain. However, the century-old-temple of Kedarnath, a much respected pilgrimage site for Hindus, escaped damage. Some call it luck and others God’s grace. Of course, it was a natural calamity, but many environment experts think otherwise. Environmentalist Anil Kulkarni felt the disaster was created by man and turned out to be a natural calamity. 


As expected, following the tragedy, there were many tall promises made by government to counter and prevent a similar calamity. Most of these proposals remain on papers. Within a year, the partially damaged Kedarnath Temple was revived. Tourists also started flocking the region and could compensate monetary loss to some extent.


But the important question remains: Are we really safe now? Or what is the guarantee that another calamity with the same intensity will not hit the area again? Research into the causes cited many reasons behind the flash flood, but the most prominent was building dams in the region without undertaking proper norms. However, another reason, which didn’t get much attention, was the growing influx of people in these tourist sites.  


Not just in Uttarakhand, at all pilgrimage sites, the number of footfalls is multiplying every passing year. And needless to say, this overcrowding leads to many problems. However, one may argue that religious tourism provides revenue for the state and employment for the local people. But at what cost? One of the most impacted at all these places is the natural resource.  



Record footfall 



Be it hill stations, sea shore or pilgrimage sites, the growing number of tourists has affected them all. Given the culture of India, visiting temples and shrine is almost mandatory for every citizen. Therefore, these pilgrimage sites are always on the receiving end. People always look forward to a visit to places like Vaishno Devi, Amarnath Temple, Badrinath, Haridwar, Shirdi Sai Baba Temple, Lord Jagannath Temple in Puri, Ajmer Sharif and others. 


Take, for instance, Anita. She, along with her family members, have been going to Vaisho Devi, a popular shrine for Hindus for the last 15 years. “It all started when we went there for our honeymoon. Since then, my husband and I made plans to come here at least once in a year. We do it every year,” she said. 


Like Anita, there are many travellers who, instead of choosing any hill station, visit temples and shrine. For them, the visit serves two purposes: It is like a family outing and at the same time, fulfils the spiritual need. Almost every second year, the number of visitors to Vaishno Devi breaks previous records. In 1986, as many as 13.96 lakh tourists visited the temple, in 2011 and 2012 the figures touched more than a crore and in 2015 it was 77.76 lakh. This is not the case with just this pilgrimage place in India -- almost every sacred place is facing the same challenge. In Shirdi, the visitors number in lakhs. Everyone knows about Amarnath, where till a few years back, an unlimited number of tourists were allowed. Now, everyday only 7,500 tourists are allowed for 56 days. In Kedarnath, which witnessed the tragedy, more than 2 lakh visitors have come in so far this year. Tirupati Balaji shrine, in Andhra Pradesh, witnesses much the same scenario. The same holds true for Ajmer Sharif too, where the number of pilgrims touches millions.



Why pilgrimage sites 



As already mentioned, in India, visiting scared places is always on top priority for everyone. The Tirth Yatra and Haj are almost mandatory for every Indian. However, while earlier people went alone or with family, with the sole purpose of religious needs, the purpose has changed over the years. People combine leisure tourism with temple tourism. Of course, they have a valid reason for it -- these pilgrimage places are closely located around nature. To reach them one has to pass through flowing water, forest and mountain tops. 


“This is one of the reasons why temple tourism is growing faster in India. The modern tourists display more tourist-like character,” said one of the Delhi-based tour operators. 


“Gone are the days when people used to visit sacred places just to worship. Now they have an extra motive -- going on vacation. They plan their temple visit during their vacations, not any period of religious importance.” 


 “Earlier, when we used to go to Vaishno Devi during childhood, we had a feeling of pilgrimage. But now, it is more like a tourist spot. There is helicopter, high-end hotels, restaurants and much more,” said Suresh Kamat, a regular visitor to Vaishno Devi. 




Construction boom



Religious places are typically located in a small town or in pristine environment to provide solace to pilgrims. To accommodate maximum number of tourists and to earn the maximum revenue, these places have witnessed a massive makeover. Now, these religious spots are equipped with hotels, restaurants, religious paraphernalia and souvenir shops, travel agencies and other businesses that cater primarily to visitors. Not only this, construction of new property is always taking place. Take a look at any place, such as Ajmer Sharif, where there is a deluge of hotels everywhere from the first point to the last. The same is true of Shirdi Temple, once a small city, which can now challenge even a metropolitan city in terms of development. 


Apart from this, helicopter services have been introduced at many places like Vaishno Devi and Amarnath. In South India too, at Tirumala, around the Balaji Temple, more and more construction is taking place. One may argue that the purpose of the construction is to provide ease and facilities to the visitors. But little do the developers know that under the garb of development they are tampering with nature. Every bit of new construction -- building new hotels, road and restaurants -- means cutting of trees, water shortage and increasing mounds of garbage. All this may, in the long run, adversely affect the economy of the state. Due to immense changes, pollution and dirt, the landscape may lose its scenic beauty too. 



Costly development 



The childhood story of the goose that lay golden eggs seems to hold true for the tourism industry also. To invite more and more tourism, the respective regions have been trying very hard to develop the area. However, they hardly seem to care for environment or nature, only revenue. The last few years have played a vital role to develop every tourist spot. However, one should realize that development doesn’t come easily, but with some limitations. The influx of crowd influences the region in many ways. 


If experts were to be believed, increase in tourist activities beyond a certain point can adversely affect the economy of a state. “The overuse of mountain trails can lead to an abundance of waste product and food items. The ground vegetation also gets damaged due to the tourists’ shoes. Food habits of animals also change sometimes,” said an environmentalist. 


Pilgrimage places are usually located in a small city or village. During vacation time or specific days or months, huge congregation of people takes place, which leads to the collapse of basic infrastructure and gives rise to associated health and environmental problems. The large influx of visitors leads to degradation of the very source of natural and religious environment. Then comes accumulation of waste, non-biodegradable waste (such as plastic and glass cups and polythene bags), water pollution (due to inadequate sewerage facilities), deforestation due to harvesting of firewood, and destruction of flora and fauna. The over-crowding also creates congestion and stampedes.  




Loss of essence 




As already discussed, more tourists means more investors. This leads to rapid urbanisation of the place. Most of the pilgrimage places are small towns or are located in villages or jungles. This urbanisation brings high stress on infrastructure and loss of forests to development. In the process of urbanisation, the culture and essence of the place is lost somewhere. At almost all the tourist places, due to the influx of visitors, local people soon try to mould themselves along the lines of modern cities. Almost every house in these regions has turned into home-stays or small guest houses. A number of houses have turned into shops selling for, or catering to, urban tourists only. The innocence, the peace and scenic beauty, which once marked the regions, now seemabsent altogether. Now, people from these places are more “professional”, their sole purpose being making money from these tourists.






Source: The Statesman