If only we had taken environment warrior Sunderlal Bahuguna seriously, we would perhaps not have seen such death and devastation in Uttarakhand.
Watching with horror the devastation in Garhwal Himalayas and the fury of the swollen Mandakini destroying almost everything in the Rudraprayag region, except the ancient Kedarnath temple said to have been built by the Pandavas, some extremely powerful images flooded the memory.
The first one brought with it the magical sound of temple bells summoning us for the morning and evening aarti at the Kedarnath shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva. It was 1987 and this was my first introduction to the magic of Garhwal Himalayas. We were two couples and my six-year-old son also accompanied us, leading to surprised exclamations from western trekkers we encountered on the way to Kedarnath.
Our accommodation was in a modest lodge near the temple, and many yatris we spoke to were amazed that this Muslim group was visiting one of Hinduism’s holiest of temples. But their biggest surprise came when the “Muslim” child joined the pujari in reciting the sloka “Sakthi saiva Ganapatam, Sankara vishevitham”. A student of the Krishnamurthy Foundation of India school in Chennai, this sloka was part of his school Assembly every morning.
I’ll never ever forget that brilliant starlit night in Gaurikund, before beginning the trek to Kedarnath... I’d love to claim I had trekked, but I didn’t. The men did; the women and the child took mules.
The intoxication of the Garhwal Himalayas, then a part of Uttar Pradesh, was such that the very next year, the same group, with our friends’ 12-year-old daughter, made a trip to Gangotri. From there, we made our way to Bhojbasa where we had booked two rooms at the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam, the UP Tourism facility. The next morning was scheduled the 4 km trek to Gaumukh, the source of the Ganga. But that night it rained heavily; there were landslides at several points and, as the boulders kept falling, Gaumukh was declared danger zone. With landslides affecting and closing crucial parts of the 14-km trekking route from Gangotri to Bhojbasa, tourists like us and thousands of yatris were stranded at Bhojbasa.
It’s been 25 years, but I vividly remember the bearded, tall and lanky manager of the rest house, who went beyond the call of duty to help the stranded yatris. He vacated his room to accommodate about 20 people, and requested us to vacate one room so that he could offer shelter to another 20. We willingly complied, even six in a room was a luxury under the circumstances. Perhaps those were different times.
Today, Twitter debates if Rs 200-500 for roti-dhal is the just price or not in a region where thousands of desperate people are trapped. Isn’t the price decided by the market, asked one worthy. But in 1988, the manager threw open his kitchen and aloo parathas were served to all the stranded people at the usual price or even free. We were stranded for four nights; power went on the first night, but every morning the manager brought hot water buckets to our room.
Our trips to the Himalayas continued… the Valley of Flowers after a few years, Badrinath in 2004 and Gangotri revisited in 2007.
The pristine region has given millions of Indians like us such great joy. But through these visit and over a quarter of a century, the voice and warnings of Sunderlal Bahuguna, environment warrior and the Chipko movement leader, who I had met as a cub reporter in the late 1970s, kept reverberating.
I regularly reported the deep concern he expressed over the systematic destruction of the fragile Garhwal region that was being allowed by the Government. His Chipko movement — the villagers would cling to the trees earmarked for axing by the timer merchants hand in glove with the government — fought against the destruction of green cover on our mountains. He later battled for long against the construction of the Tehri dam. His constant warning was that such dams impede the flow of rivers and can cause huge catastrophes in the fragile Uttarakhand mountains.
On his rare visits to Madras, I’d get educated on the havoc deforestation and damming of rivers would cause to the region. In 1981, he politely refused a Padmashri, saying: “I do not deserve it till the flesh and blood (top soil) of India was flowing down to the sea.” Later, as he went on repeated hunger strikes to stop the Tehri dam construction, he was even called an “environmental terrorist”. On our first trip to Garhwal (Kedarnath), I was delighted when at Tehri he boarded our bus.
In the early ’90s when I was invited for a panel discussion at an environment conference in Delhi and saw Bahuguna listed as a keynote speaker, I called him all excited, to say we would meet soon. His chilling reply: “I declined that invitation; the meeting is in a five star hotel and such hotels are the shamshan ghat (crematorium) of green trees. They are built after destroying hundreds of trees.”
Today at 86, Bahuguna is a frail man, and was hospitalised this April for a breathing problem. But his words and warnings ring true; of course they weren’t heeded as the nexus between the timber and mining lobbies continued through different governments. Even last week, if the alert official machinery had acted in time by closing the route once torrential rains started, or beginning rescue operations much earlier, hundreds of lives could have been saved.
As the Kedarnath temple looms tall and isolatory amidst the massive ruin and destruction, mere mortals can only wonder at its survival. Either the engineering and building technology were far superior over a thousand years ago, or the huge boulder that fell bang behind the temple bore the brunt of the gushing torrent and protected the shrine, or there was something in that stone structure that no disaster could destroy.
Pick the explanation that suits you. But the rest of the temple complex has been destroyed and will have to be rebuilt. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has said Gujarat has the experience of the 2001 massive earthquake and has volunteered to rebuild it. The Congress Chief Minister of Uttarakhand says even before Modi, the Maharashtra Chief Minister and industrialists in Mumbai had offered to do so. Politics will surely be played on this issue too. But the best way to do so will be by allowing millions, like this writer, who have been soothed by the Kedar deity over long years, to participate in that rebuilding.
Keeping in mind, of course, the warnings of environmentalists like Bahuguna… its time to end the looting and plundering in a vulnerable, fragile and priceless region like the Himalayas. The sowbhagyavati pooja done on my bangles in a tiny shrine near Gaurikund remains a sacred moment in my life.