By Gautam Kaul
By the time this small essay find a public opening for readers, the death toll for the Char Dham Yatra, including Kedarnath Temple in Garhwal, should have crossed the 125 mark (excluding road accidents on the Char Dham route). The toll shall slowly increase because the conditions created around the temple area do not offer any protection to the visitors whose pilgrimage is based entirely on ‘aastha’.
It need not be thus. We need to reflect first why these deaths are being reported when there were no such reports seven years ago before the deluge hit the temple following incessant rains in the area.
Kedarnath is located at an approximate height of 11,700 ft above sea level. The temple is located in a funnel protected by two high mountains on its sides with the mountain streams Mandakini and Saraswati flowing in this gorge. This wide gorge daily, at around 12.30 p.m., sees the rise of high winds which shed their energies by about 5 p.m. Daily, all flights are closed during this time. (The latest episode occurred on 7 June, ‘22, when a helicopter hit its side while landing due to wind sheer.) Any helicopter moving in this area must come down to under 8,000 ft a.s.l. for its own safety and wait for the winds to calm down. In the last ten years, there have been at least two flying accidents when helicopters became victims of wind sheer in this funnel area and hit one side of the mountain with fatal results.
The second factor to keep in mind is the height of the temple dedicated to Lord Shiva the Destroyer. In geography, we were taught the atmosphere consists of gases such as oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide and when you move above the height of 6,000 ft a.s.l. the oxygen concentration above the ground starts to get thin. The rate of depletion of atmospheric oxygen may vary locally depending on the concentration of vegetation, but in mountain areas the depletion is relatively uniform for every 100 feet of height away from the ground. In general terms, any person climbing mountains must either have very good lungs, or be young in age between 18 and 55 years. One can still be a good mountaineer even at the age of 70 years if one is a yoga practitioner. The oxygen depletion is measured in atmospheric pressure or percent in less oxygen. At Kedarnath, the atmospheric presence of oxygen is only 40 percent of the required level. This means that the lungs must breathe faster and the heart must pump more to retain the oxygen level in the body. When the compensatory level of oxygen is not available, the heart suffers fatigue and its muscles cease to work. The oxygen depletion also affects the brain, which because of oxygen starvation swells inside the skull and we have high altitude pain in the brain. The only cure is to either quickly bring the patient down to a ground level under 6500 ft a.s.l. or be put under extra oxygen supply to breathe. All heart attacks in recent deaths here are reportedly due to oxygen starvation.
The conservative way to take a darshan at Kedarnath is to get acclimatised with the higher heights. For Kedarnath, a minimum 24 hours’ halt at about a height of 8,500 – 10,000 ft a.s.l. is ideal. This is achieved when a person treks into the area and slowly gains altitude.
I remember, during 1967-69, when the Garhwal Vikas Mandal was on a road development spree in this area, alarmed citizens saw how quickly the environment deteriorated around Badrinath Temple when an all weather road reached the pilgrim village. They ran down to New Delhi as a delegation and met Mrs Indira Gandhi and requested her to stop the under construction road to Kedarnath to preserve the sanctity of the area. Mrs Gandhi saw the point and quickly ordered stoppage of the construction work. The road had reached up to Gauri Kund by then. The result of this stoppage was the hill streams remained clean for direct drinking of water, sanitation remained under control, and the temple area was never crowded except on the opening and closing week. Except the temple priests, the good place for staying overnight was at Gauri Kund, which also became the terminal bus stop. The pony and mule drivers also camped at Gauri Kund. At night, a lone electric bulb lit the main temple compound.
Directions were issued by the high authorities to upgrade all important places of Hindu worship. Char Dham, including Kedarnath, came into consideration and a plan was made to beautify the area. New power lines were laid, a helipad was developed, a police post was created, tourist cottages were designed, new rest rooms for temple purohits and dharmashalas were planned, the approach pathway was widened and stone paved, a primary health centre was considered. New barracks for pony drivers were planned and a cave was carved out for meditation for those who could afford. Indeed a new small town of Kedarnath was envisaged. But some important factors were totally overlooked. No one planned how the new mini town would attract the worshippers, nobody planned how the area sanitation would be cared for, and garbage disposed, no body foresaw the streams of Mandakini and Saraswati become so polluted as to make them undrinkable.
With a lot of fanfare, the new Kedarnath area was reopened for public. Against an earlier lot of 1000 worshippers coming daily, the opening week saw an average of 30,000 worshippers in the temple area. People did not return to sleep until late at night and strolled around to see the floodlit temple. There was no crowd control; the area was littered with paper and plastic bags, half finished food packets, and what not. Prime Minister Modi had to make a rare public appeal to people not to litter the temple area. It made little difference. Kedarnath had been ‘raped’ of its aastha; it had been turned into a local market. And nothing could now be done to save it. Mrs Gandhi’s fear had now come to descend as reality.
Deaths were one of the fallouts of the new development. Where once it took half a day to walk or ride a pony from Gauri Kund to reach Kedarnath Temple, the newly developed path made it possible to do the same journey in about 175 minutes. The journey of 16 kms was so fast that no acclimatisation could be done for the last leg of 2,500 ft. Weak hearts gave way, weak lungs gasped for oxygen and there was insufficient supply against the demand. Heart attacks followed.
What is the remedy?
Organise crowd control into this area. Permits should not be issued for more than 2000 visitors per day for the full season. No cottages should be booked at Kedarnath. Develop Gauri Kund as a new hill station for trekkers to the temple. There should be ‘lights out’ for the entire area once the doors of the temple are closed. Visitors should be given one hour after door closure to move out and come down to Gauri Kund for overnight halt. The temple purohits should organise simple ‘langar’ for feeding the visitors and all sale of junk food banned and confiscated. No plastic water bottles should be allowed and personal bottles of metal of no more than 600ccs permitted. Drink a lot of light tea instead. The temple committee should recruit local ex-servicemen to organise control when there are crowds. There should be no police presence in the temple area. Children below the ages of seven years should be discouraged for their safety. There should be no television or radio in use in public. Helicopter passengers must be pulled out of the area within four hours of their arrival or they would be hit by high altitude sickness. The primary health centre should have a regular oxygen generating plant and medical staff on duty 24 hours.
(Gautam Kaul is a retired DG, ITBP)