Pilgrims on the Char Dham route have left a heaping mound of garbage in just 15 days since the pilgrimage began, leaving authorities scratching their heads over the environmental consequences.
Over 800,000 pilgrims have already visited the Char Dham shrines since the pilgrimage began this year, while another million people who have registered are still to arrive. Tourist and pilgrim numbers are expected to skyrocket with the summer break in the plains beginning shortly.
Experts and environment activists warn that the Himalaya’s higher reaches in Uttarakhand had been thrown into a new ecological danger due to the littering by tourists and pilgrims.
Garhwal Central University department of geography head Prof MS Negi told Asian News International: “The way plastic garbage has piled up in a sensitive place like Kedarnath is hazardous for our ecology. It will lead to erosion which can cause landslides. We must keep in mind the tragedy of 2013 and remain careful.”
Prof Negi was referring to the June 2013 cloudburst that caused devastating floods and landslides across Uttarakhand — leading to India’s worst natural disaster since the Bay of Bengal tsunami of 2004.
Reports suggest solid waste generation in Kedarnath, one of the four dhams, had gone up to 10,000 kg a day from 5,000 kg. According to estimates, a person generates a 7-9 kg waste on an average during the Char Dham pilgrimage, assuming a nine-day journey to the four shrines.
Speaking to Asian News International, High Altitude Plant Physiology Research Centre Director Prof MC Nautiyal said: “The tourist inflow has risen manifold due to which plastic garbage has increased as we don’t have proper sanitation facilities. This has affected the natural vegetation. Medicinal plants are getting extinct as well.”
The Char Dham pilgrimage begins in May and continues till November, as determined by the Hindu religious almanac. It is among the most popular pilgrimages in the Himalayas with a huge influx of tourists.
The experts also pointed to the absence of mechanisms to dispose waste according to the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016.
Environmentalists are appalled by the pictures that have emerged on social media of garbage strewn across the Bhagirathi, Yamuna, Alaknanda, and Mandakini rivers. The rivers in Yamnotri and Gangotri are full of discarded clothes, left by pilgrims after their holy bath.
Local residents are also horrified by the behaviour of the tourists.
The local authorities are now forming quick response teams to ensure no waste entered the rivers on the Char Dham route. They have already begun door-to-door wate collection in 1,152 wards of the state’s urban local bodies. It is also conducting source segregation in 1,040 wards of urban local bodies such as Uttarkashi and Joshimath.