Reimagining ‘Char Dham’ in Uttarakhand

By Rishabh Shrivastava

Char Dham – Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath – in the hill state of Uttarakhand has shared deep spiritual, cultural and social ties not just with the people of Uttarakhand but all across the country. Char Dham has a rich history and deep links with the philosophy of Hinduism. However, over a period of time, the idea of Char Dham is not just limited to spiritual contours, rather it has evolved dramatically.

Today, Char Dham is synonymous with development, tourism, livelihoods, economy and several other facets which are giving the region a new identity.  The role of the incumbent Modi Government cannot be ignored in this. It is because under his leadership the government has taken a lot of bold and controversial moves to transform the Char Dham circuit.

It was the flash floods in 2013 that destroyed the holy town of Kedarnath and claimed thousands of lives. The unfateful incident, cast a big shadow of doubt on the future of Char Dham. In 2014, only 8.4 lakh pilgrims visited Char Dham, the lowest in history. The circuit witnessed a steep fall of 84% in the pilgrim influx. Large chunks of NH7 was washed away, trekking routes were submerged and local infrastructure was ravished. And, it was in 2014 when India elected Narendra Modi as its PM!

From 2016, things started falling back into place. Between 2016 to 2018, the circuit witnessed a 70% increase in the pilgrims visiting the four holy shrines. In 2019, Char Dham witnessed the highest turnout in the history – 38 lakh pilgrims. Coincidentally, it was on 27 December 2016 that PM Modi inaugurated his ambitious “Char Dham Mahamarg” project in Dehradun.

The project sparked huge protests by conservationists and environmental experts from all over the country and abroad. The construction of the proposed highway poses a huge threat to the ecological fragility of the hills and river Ganga. Not to forget, the project is alleged to have bypassed several environmental norms relating to clearances, muck dumping, tree cutting etc.

After this, came another pet project of Modi, this time it was for the devastated town of Kedarnath – the Kedarpuri Restoration and Redevelopment Plan. The horrifying video clippings of bodies buried under the muck for several days and buildings getting demolished within second left a bad memory in the minds of the people. With rampant corruption and mismanagement on the ground, the state government struggled to revive the town.

Finally, Shri Kedarnath Utthan Charitable Trust was aided by PM Modi to carry out the restoration tasks on the ground. Several corporates (like Jindal and Reliance) too joined the forces to carry out redevelopment works in the holy town.

With COVID-19 pandemic bringing the world to a total halt, this year’s Char Dham Yatra is also lull. The Yatra was opened only for the state residents on 1 July. Till 6 July, 3884 passes have been issued for the yatra. Pilgrims are advised to practice strict social distancing norms, use masks and sanitizers.

Last year, the Uttarakhand Government also took a bold move which didn’t go well with the influential community of priests in the state. Presently, the Char Dham and few other major temples are managed by the priests (in the form of associations or committees). Till now Shri Badrinath and Shri Kedarnath Temples Act 1939, made in the erstwhile UP Administration, was responsible for providing better administration and governance of the Shri Badrinath Temple and its endowment and Shri Kedarnath Temple and its endowment. However, in December 2019, the Government of Uttarakhand passed Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act 2019 in the assembly.

The act empowers the state government to take over the Char Dhams and 51 other temples in the hill state. The act talks about setting up of the board, of which CM will be CEO and Governor being the Patron. The other members will be nominated by the CEO/CM. Aggrieved by this move, the powerful priest community moved against the decision to HC and BJP MP Subramaniam Swamy ended up filing PIL. On 7 July, the court had told that it has reserved its decision on the matter.

The point that the state government is trying to make through the act is; Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act does not interfere with the religious affairs of the temples rather tries to regulate the temporal affairs. Since ages, several temple committees and acts have differentiated between the religious and temporal affairs of the temples.

The state government had highlighted this fact in its argument that mismanagement of shrines has led to the segregation of religious and temporal functions of the religious institutions. It was also reported that state government highlighted text from Manusmriti which talked about Hindu law and Kings differentiating between the religious and administrative affairs.

With Char Dham becoming a widely visited circuit, government eyes to regulate financial, tourism, employment, local economy-related issues in order to create better services and infrastructure, which in turn could result in enhanced revenue generation for the state. This is also being done in order to streamline the management issues and give memorable and best experiences to the pilgrims visiting the circuit. However, priests seem to be unconvinced.

Subramaniam Swamy in his PIL has unequivocally stated that this move by Uttarakhand government is against the right to religious freedom and violated Article 25 and 26 of the Indian Constitution. He went on to say that the government cannot interfere with the ‘religious’ matters of the temple.

Well, the court has already decided and it will be a matter of time before we get to know which side emerges as victorious.

But, one thing is clear. The idea of Char Dham needs to be reimagined. These developmental reforms are surely needed to create and sustain the new identity of Char Dham, which is dynamic and powerful. It has the potential to create long term benefits for the hill state which is already reeling under the social distress of migration in the hilly regions and rising unemployment rate amongst the youngsters.

However, keeping mind the past experiences from the 2013 flood and ecological sensitivity of the state, it will be imperative to honor the principle of sustainable development and ensure maximum participation of local stakeholders. Also, these reforms should not become subservient to the interests big corporations housed in Mumbai or Delhi, rather local communities should be the ones anchoring and driving these reforms in the mountain state.

Author is Lead – Public Policy & Communications at SDC Foundation. He tweets at @Writer_Rishabh.

The Article was first published by SDC Foundation.

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