|Gomukh, the source of the Ganga, teeters on the verge of ecological disaster, due to insensitive visitors, greedy locals and an indifferent state government|
However, Gomukh is today facing a threat to its existence because of ecological assault by insensitive visitors and greedy locals. What has aggravated the situation is the negligence by the Uttaranchal government in terms of steps to protect Gomukh's ecology.
The signs of degradation are everywhere: what used to be a memorable trek through bhoj (birch) forests is now a trudge through a treeless landscape. Bhojwasa, five km before Gomukh, has lost the tree that gave it its name. The locals use the bhoj timber as fuel, despite a government ban, and trekkers use its branches as walking sticks. With no public toilets along the trek, travellers simply use any place they can.
There is a snaking line of dhabas along the trek and their business comes accompanied by a mountain of empty plastic bottles and left-overs all piling up in an area that was declared a 'national park' two years ago.
The forest department allots dhabas on this trek, but does not monitor how they run their business, charging visitors three times the price for water and soft drinks."The rape of this shrine is gruesome and the neglect by the government in this regard is pathetic," says Prem Kumar, head priest of Gangotri temple.
For the last eight years, the mother-daughter duo of Shanti Thakur and 20-year-old Kalpana has been campaigning against the use of plastic in the region and dumping of wastes in the river, but their efforts seem as futile as trying to stop the Ganga from flowing. On conducting personal checks of visitors' baggage, the Thakurs have recovered plastic bottles, liquor, meat, gas cylinders, and narcotics. As a 10-year-old, Kalpana staged street plays to warn the visitors against the use of plastics. Mother and daughter have often been threatened by local shopkeepers and businessmen who see the conservationists as harming their interests. And trees continue to be felled, garbage thrown into the Ganga and ashrams used as drug-dens. Thakur has even petitioned Chief Minister Narain Dutt Tewari. "Nothing has moved the government officials," she says. Her daughter spends substantial time with the local people educating them about environmental degradation, "I cannot compromise the life of my mother, river Ganga, for the sake of promoting tourism and religion," says Kalpana.
Om Prakash Bhatt, son of Chandi Prashad Bhatt-a Magsaysay Award winner for his works in the hills-had filed a PIL in the Allahabad High Court in 1999 for the protection of glaciers in the Himalayas, but to no avail. "It is shocking that the government is compromising with the flora and fauna of the state under the guise of promoting religio-adventure tourism," he says. Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to have scaled the Mount Everest, was critical of the lack of basic infrastructure and civic amenities in the region. "There should be a check on the number of visitors," Pal demanded. Though the Uttaranchal government in 2005 sought to put a check on the number of visitors to Gomukh by issuing permits, it failed to implement the order.
The glacier has already receded by 28 km and if the rate of retreat does not stop, it would one day disappear drying up the source of water for the Ganga, which will cause havoc in northern India.The only piece of news that the conservationists may welcome comes from Dr Ashwani Kumar Tangari, a senior glaciologist at the Remote Sensing Data Application Centre (RSAC) of the UP government. He believes that while it is true that the Himalayan glaciers are shrinking and retreating due to global warming, the rate of retreat has slowed down over the last four years. According to Tangari, there is a possibility that the region is re-entering a cooling era which could reverse the trend worrying glaciologists today. "The cooling era could result in advancement of the glaciers and heavy discharge of water from the snow-melt," said Tangari.
For the rest-both ecologists and visitors-the Gomukh trek seems unsustainable. Gangotri-Gomukh together form one of the Chardhams (four sacred sites) of Hindu pilgrimage. A majority of the pilgrims are old but there is no medical assistance available. Shanti Devi, a pilgrim from Madhya Pradesh, had to tend to her ill relative who lay in a dhaba for three days with no medical help. Porters charge the seriously ill Rs 5,000 to carry them back.
Trekking here is very dangerous. With the cracking of the glacier, the ice boulders keep caving in, sometimes killing visitors, particularly the kanwarias who walk up to the snout of the glacier to bathe. "Last year over a dozen kanwarias died." says an official of the base camp of the RSAC. A foreigner was also reportedly washed away after being trapped under the debris of the glacier.
The path towards Gomukh is at some stages barely two feet wide, with a roaring Ganga rolling down in a deep gorge on the right and a rocky cliff on the left, from where gravel and big boulders can come tumbling down from a height of around 3,000 feet. There is no railing or fencing for pilgrims to hold on to. However the Public Works Department (PWD) has put some caution boards by way, it seems, of moral support. On the last 5 km-long stretch to Gomukh, where boulders function as the route, one of the boards says, "asuvidha ke liye khed hai" (sorry for the inconvenience).
With pressure mounting from every corner, the state government has finally constitued a committee comprising scientists, geologists and technical experts to submit a report on the retreat of glaciers in Uttaranchal and also to study its impact. But unless it moves faster, the situation may move beyond control soon.