The Badrinath Temple was re-opened for the season on Friday under unusual circumstances. The low attendance reflected the present dismal status of pilgrimage and tourism in the state. It is unlikely that anything like ‘normal’ will return on this front, this year. Considering the importance of summer tourism and pilgrimage to the local economy, there is good reason for the government to worry. Basically, an entire year’s earnings are traditionally earned in this period of approximately four months. It is not just government revenues and GDP that will be affected, the local people will be hard put to survive, particularly those directly related to this sector.
It is in this context that the Tourism Minister, Satpal Maharaj, even came up with the concept of scuba diver like equipment for pilgrims so that they could safely make the pilgrimage. Although this has been the subject of considerable humour, it does reflect the desperation of those affected by the impact of social distancing on activity that traditionally has involved large congregations. In contrast to this, some experts in the tourism field, such as veteran travel writers Hugh & Colleen Gantzer, have suggested promoting and preparing for visitors who can afford ‘safe’ but expensive cocoons that can make visits possible. It may be noted that Goa has already launched plans to attract the millionaire class of tourist. Uttarakhand has an additional attraction in terms of pilgrimage, which the well-to-do would be happy to participate in if made possible.
A controversy has erupted also on tapping into the wealth of temples for the purpose of combating the COVID-19 situation. Although the Char Dhams are likely not as well to do as the giants such as the Tirupati Temple, theoretically these could help tide over the present crisis. Unfortunately, because all such major temples are under government control, any release of such funds or gold deposits would appear as though Khilji and Aurangzeb are at it again. Had the temples been independent entities, they could have chosen to help the common people and those affected in the way they felt right. At the same time, though, if undertaken in a totally transparent manner, help could be provided to those whose livelihoods are directly related to pilgrimage – from the priests down the entire chain to those who transport, house and feed the pilgrims. Once things return to normal, the devotees would refill the coffers with even greater reverence and enthusiasm. Out of the box thinking is required right now and time cannot be wasted for lack of decisiveness.