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ECOWATCH

The Ganga could run dry ...

SHUBHRANSHU CHOUDHARY

... the Gomukh glacier, which sustains it, is the newest addition to the tourism circuit, but the sheer number of people is threatening its very existence and, in turn, their own.

PHOTO: WWF

FAST MELTING ICE: The Gomukh glacier is thinning rapidly because of global warming and increased human interference.

WHEN one starts to trek from Gangotri to reach Gomukh, it is also a time when one can appreciate the instructions in the Hindu scriptures. They say one should undertake this pilgrimage only after the fulfillment of family responsibilities ... . A glance from the narrow path to where the Ganges flows below is enough to make you feel dizzy. A miscalculation would mean certain death. And yet India's youth throng to Gomukh.

The Gomukh glacier is the source of the Ganges, amidst the snow-capped Himalayas. And it is also the latest addition to India's religio-adventure tourism circuit — the other two being Vaishno Devi in the north and Sabarimala in the south.

Even till five years ago, not many knew about this Gomukh Kanwad Yatra. But this year, more than a lakh of young people visited Gomukh in July. They have to be young to undertake this gruelling task. All of them returned with a pot of water from the Gomukh glacier the ice from which becomes the Ganges river.

Glacier receding

According to Hindu scriptures, Gangotri is the spot where the Ganga descended from the locks of Shiva. The temple of Ganga is also located at Gangotri. Locals believe that many years ago, the tip of the Gangotri glacier was at Gangotri, but Gomukh, where the Ganga rises, has now receded 19 kilometres downstream.

British traveller Samuel Burn once wrote that when he reached Gangotri in 1866, the local people opposed his wish to travel further to Gomukh. According to Burn, they believed that Gangotri is the holiest place and human interference in Gomukh is non-religious.

The Gangotri glacier has been melting as the part of global changes after the last Ice Age. But scientists say the rate of melting has doubled since the 1970s.

Glaciologist from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, Rajesh Kumar says, "This increased melt rate/descent is largely due to warming up, thanks to the emission of green house gases. But increased human interference is also not a good sign for the glacier's health. Earlier, there were nine tributaries to the Gangotri glacier. Now we are left with five."

He adds, "Gangotri is not only receding, but the dimensions of the glacier have decreased considerably in the last few years. I fear if this continues, we may end up with the Ganges being a monsoon-fed river by the end of this century."

A tragedy in the offing

Samrat Sengupta of the WWF echoes his sentiments. "According to our studies, due to the rise in temperature, the river flow will increase by 20 per cent initially because of more snow melt. But, ultimately, the flow will decrease by 20 per cent. A population equal to Europe lives in the Ganges basin. Their livelihoods are dependent on the river. You can imagine the size of the tragedy we are talking about here."

Like Burn, modern travellers are also facing opposition from locals. Shanti Thakur spearheads Save Glacier Movement, and has tried to stop the yatra from continuing, but to no avail.

She says, "If there is no Ganges, then what good will be your religious sentiments? So how am I doing anything that is anti-religious?"

Thakur has found a strong supporter in Supreme Court environment lawyer M.C. Mehta who is thinking of filing a PIL on the subject .

Mehta says, "I recently went to see what goes on at Amarnath and Gangotri. What I saw has pained me. If we call them Devbhumis, the land of God, then we must respect them.

"I saw tourists spreading dirt all over. They are even burning gas in that sensitive environment. I saw our army sending up a mountaineering team in those heights. We need to sensitise our Government that they may be earning many thousand rupees by way of fees from these mountaineers but what we are losing is irrecoverable, and hence priceless."

Harshwanti Bisht, an economist professor in the local college in nearby Uttarkashi, says, "How can a truly religious person be insensitive to the atmosphere? This is just an adventure in the name of religion that has huge negative repercussions. We must think about what we are doing."

But, ironically, tourists are a major source of income for the local people. Gopal Bisht runs a tea stall on the trek route from Gangotri to Gomukh. He shares the concern expressed but has a practical suggestion. "We have more than a dozen equally beautiful spots near Gangotri and some have religious significance. We could spread the tourist flow amongst these spots. This will save the environment and, at the same time, not hurt our livelihood."

Gangotri was a very small place some years back. Today it has a big bustling market with many ashrams along the road. Ishavashyam Ashram is one of them next to the main Ganga temple which one has to access across a hanging bridge.

The head of the Ashram, Swami Raghavendranand, is young and educated and has a keen interest in recording the beauty of the Himalayas. In his spotlessly clean ashram while showing me photographs, he says, "liberalisation of the economy, good roads and the young looking for a miracle; you need to look at all these sociological aspects if you want to understand this sudden increase in religious tourism.

"No one had even heard of this yatra on foot to Gomukh even five years ago. Last year, we collected more than 11/2 tonnes of clothes from Gomukh after the yatra. Every pilgrim discards his/her old clothes after a bath in the Gomukh. If you look around you will see only heaps of plastic bottles."

But Raghavendranand is not worried. He says" stopping the yatra itself is no solution. We need to educate our youth. The young are attracted to religion thanks to this yatra and we must welcome it. Our shastras say the Ganges will disappear in Kaliyug so whatever you do you cannot stop it."

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