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    South Asia
     Oct 25, '13

The Ganges to perdition
By Raja Murthy

What makes a river so restful to people is that it doesn't have any doubt it is sure to get where it is going, and it doesn't want to go anywhere else.
- Hal Boyle (1911-1974), legendary New York-based newspaper columnist

The temple lights glimmer like slivers of gold on waters of the Ganges, as northern India's life-giving river flows serenely through a land ravaged this summer by death and destruction.

Like a traumatized patient, the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand is slowly recovering from catastrophic floods in June. Swept away in a flash were over 5,000 lives, as well as villages, roads and

bridges. Uttarkhand, this land of the gods, saw havoc from hell. The fatal floods left behind lesson of a life time: that Mother's Nature is patient, but her patience is not infinite.

Uttarakhand was damned because the Ganges was dammed. The tourism-dependant state has an estimated 98 hydroelectric projects. Another 197 are being planned, to slake the ever-growing thirst for luxuries that cause a thirst for electricity. The River Ganges and her little sister tributaries Alaknanda and Bhagirathi were being clogged, choked, re-directed in ways nature never intended. And the deadly bill came this June.

Search for victims still continues in remote mountain villages. In the first week of October, the state government tentatively re-opened pilgrimage routes to Badrinath and Kedarnath, the worst hit in the summer tragedy. But would the road from Rishikesh ever again be clogged as in recent years? Or, would there be a diminished river of tourists, or at least a more regulated tourism industry?

Last summer was one such of recent summers I have seen in the Himalayas, in a route to perdition - near bumper-to-bumper car traffic during weekends, stretching miles along National Highway 58 connecting New Delhi to Badrinath, near the Tibet border. The phenomenal rush was not just the usual pilgrims, but of adventure seekers on the river Ganges.

The peak tourist season dawns this month. Increasing number of visitors from all over India, the US, Russia, Europe, South America, Japan, China and other countries arrive in Rishikesh. Their yoga classes might be amid a quiet perhaps not experienced for decades. Meditators seeking solitude might be more at peace. There could be a few hundred thousand less noisy pilgrims this winter, those coming here as a rite and ritual. And there could be fewer adventure tourists.

Rishikesh in peak season usually sees a gushing torrent of four-wheel drives with blue, orange and yellow rafts, kayaks and paddles on the roof. The adventure tourism tide rolls off to rafting points at Brahmpuri, Shivpuri, Marine Drive and Kaudiyala, eight to 36-km away up on the mountain road.

Arvind Bharadwaj, had never seen anything like these recent summers either, in his nearly two decades in adventure tourism. "The official figures are 200,000 people going rafting in the 2012-13 season," Bharadwaj told Asia Times Online, "an increase of 50% to 60% over the previous year".

In 2000, Bharadwaj and Vipin Sharma founded the now globally known Red Chilli Adventures in Rishikesh. Barely two or three professional rafting and trekking companies existed circa 1987. Now 148 rafting companies have opened shop in Rishikesh, and more want to hop onto the river wagon.

The rafting business began to symbolize the tourism infrastructure being dangerously overloaded in Uttrakhand. Overloaded rafts, substandard life jackets, untrained guides, lack of first-aid and rescue equipment became part of the frantically bloating adventure tourism business.

Like a mother, "the River Ganges is very forgiving", said Vipin Sharma of the increasing number of rafts on the river, "otherwise there would have a few accidents".

The accident came, but with devastation and destruction few anticipated. Hotels, multi-storied riverside resorts, houses were washed away in the hell floods of June. The clouds burst because the laws of nature were burst.

The Himalayan region was meant for the life-feeding river Ganges to flow, not to be dammed beyond tolerable excess. More dam-water storage areas meant more water precipitation in an air never meant to hold such moisture content. Simultaneously, the region suffered deforestation to feed unregulated economic growth. Tragedy rained.

This winter will tell if lessons have been learnt, the hard painful way. If a certain result is to be avoided, then the pertaining cause has to be avoided. Reducing demand for hydro-powered electricity would reduce chances of a repeated tragedy.

In written human history, the Himalayas had never seen a tragedy such as this June. The Himalayan river, like life, flows on. By sunset of a rafting season, the last of rafts usually bob their erratic way across the Ganges. On the left bank, lights of the grand temple at Laxman Jhula (bridge) glimmer to greet the early stars twinkling in the dusk of the dying day.

Maybe this winter, the Ganges will have fewer rafts and kayaks. But more definitely, Uttarkhand and her tourist industry lifestyle will need more simplicity and less luxury, more ceiling fans, and less air-conditioning. This beautiful northern land needs more of the river, the state chief minister Vijay Bahuguna was reminded, and less of dams to feed over-consuming greed. The river, like a man of destiny, "doesn't have any doubt it is sure to get where it is going, and it doesn't want to go anywhere else". Hindering it is hazardous.

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