About 275 pilgrims have registered for this year's Char Dham yatra, barely a fortnight before one of the four, Kedarnath temple, reopens its doors to worshippers on May 4. In earlier years, the number of registrations would easily have been four-five times as much by this time.
Also, just 10-15 pilgrims have opted to walk the 14 km-stretch from Gourikund to Kedarnath, the traditional way to do the pilgrimage, and, until last year, preferred by a majority of pilgrims. This year, in contrast, an overwhelming majority have booked the helicopter service, reveal officials of the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN), the government agency that manages Char Dham tours. Last year, the two-way chopper ride from Phata near Rudraprayag cost around Rs8,000; the fare this year is likely to increase by Rs500-Rs1,000, say GMVN officials.
This year's yatra is clearly under the shadow of last June's devastating floods in which 580 lives were lost (official toll), over 5,200 people went missing and thousands were left stranded on mountain sides for days without food and shelter.
Besides, the weather conditions around Kedarnath continue to be inclement. The area is experiencing an unprecedented, prolonged winter, with heavy rain and snowfall. As a result, the administration is yet to complete its preparation for the yatra. According to Ganesh Godiyal, chairperson of the Badrinath-Kedarnath Temple Committee, work on the 24-km-stretch from Sonprayag to the temple has not been completed. "There is five-feet-deep snow beyond Rambara. But the state PWD is working on a war footing," he said.
The state government, he said, has pulled out all stops, pressing all its departments into service to ensure the safety and convenience of pilgrims. The Border Road Organisation has readied the road between Sonprayag and Gaurikund. Earlier this month, the state roped in the services of high-altitude mountaineers from Manali's Nehru Mountaineering Institute (NIM) to cut through the snow between Rambara and Kedarnath.
NIM principal Ajay Kothiyal and the state police DIG GS Martolia have been camping in tents above Rambara, 7km from the temple, since early April to supervise 800 labourers who work whenever the weather improves, said Rudraprayag district magistrate Raghav Langer. "Work continues at night, under lights sometimes," he said.
Work is in progress to build two bridges over rivers and two helipads, at Linchouli and Kedarnath, which will also be used to ferry the pre-fabricated huts where pilgrims will be housed. This year, the state government has also recruited an outside company, Tirupati-based Trilok Security Systems, to monitor the flow of pilgrims.
"Just 500 pilgrims will be allowed beyond Sonprayag, so that at any given point, there are only around a 1,000 people on the path to Kedarnath," said Ravichand, managing director of the company, which will set up seven mobile registration centres in Haridwar, Rishikesh and a few other towns for pilgrims. Registration will be online and pilgrims will be issued biometric cards, with real-time monitoring of traffic at several points along the way using satellite communication facilities. The website, Onlinechardham.com is to become operational from April 25, said Ravichand.
Not everyone, however, is happy with the government's eagerness to attract the pilgrims on the Char Dham yatra. Vimal bhai of the Ganga Matu Jan Sangathan, a local NGO, said that he would have preferred if the government had encouraged pilgrims to go to Pandukeshar and Ukimath, where the Badrinath and Kedarnath deities, respectively, are housed in winter. "The Uttarakhand economy depends a lot on the Char Dham yatra and the people's livelihood had been affected badly by the drop in tourism. But the whole thing has become politicised," he said.
Getting back on its feet
Road between Sonprayag and Gaurikund ready
High-altitude mountaineers cut through snow between Rambara and Kedarnath
Five-feet-deep snow beyond Rambara has held up work on 24-km-stretch from Sonprayag to the temple
800 labourers, camping in tents above Rambara, work whenever the weather improves
Two new helipads, at Linchouli and Kedarnath, being built; will be used to ferry pre-fabricated huts where pilgrims will be housed
Tirupati-based company will monitor flow of pilgrims' no more than 500 will be allowed beyond Sonprayag