Lateral thoughts: Holiday plans in quandary

The Chamoli disaster could affect tourism and economy, already battered by COVID-19 pandemic 

By Vibha Varshney
Published: Friday 12 February 2021
The Chamoli disaster could affect tourism and economy, which was already battered by COVID-19 pandemic.

Most people I talked to during the country-wide lockdown enforced to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) reminisced about the times when they could travel freely. My Facebook feed kept throwing up memories from their trips across the country.

Many of these were from Uttarakhand, which is the closest tourist destination from the national capital. The state also has popular hill stations such as Mussoorie and Nainital. There are also trekking spots such as Nanda Devi Biosphere reserve, the Valley of Flowers and Auli. Places like Badrinath temple and Shri Hemkund Sahib are popular religious destinations.

But the Chamoli disaster has proved that this Himalayan region is dangerous. Massive floods caused large-scale destruction in the area and washed away villages in 2013. We have only ourselves to blame.

Such disasters are not good news for a state that wants to promote tourism in the area. The potential is huge for Uttarakhand is popular among local tourists. Following the latest disaster, state tourism minister Satpal Maharaj was quick to point out that danger has been averted and that everything was normal. He was talking specifically about the Char Dham Yatra scheduled for May.

When the state witnessed reverse migration during the COVID-19 lockdown, the authorities saw it as an opportunity to promote tourism and simultaneously provide employment to the reverse-migrants. A report by the State Migration and Rural Development Commission indicated that 70 per cent people decided to stay back.

Uttarakhand’s plan was good: People realised the importance of travel during the lockdown. But we forget how little we understand of this ecosystem.

As these places are inaccessible for most part of the year, there has always been a natural check on the number of tourists that could reach the place. For example, the Valley of Flowers is accessible only during a few months in summer as extreme cold and rains make hiking impossible. This changed with construction of roads.

The Himalayan range is young: It was created when India and Eurasia collided due to tectonic plate movement. This pushed up the rocks and formed the mountain range. These plates are still moving and the Himalayas continue to rise more than one centimetre a year.

This puts continuous stress on the rocks and makes them weak and prone to landslides as well as earthquakes.

Despite this, a large number of infrastructure projects have been put in place in the area. Building dams and roads is not a good idea, but they have been built despite local protests. In fact, Chamoli district is home to Reni village, where the Chipko movement against large scale deforestation began.

The inability to travel is a double whammy for people. Travelling is good for health even at cellular levels and would have helped deal with COVID-19. Researchers found that a walk in a forest environment can increase the number of natural killer cells in a person. These cells link the innate and adaptive immune system and help the body fight infections.

We have to learn from experience. Both COVID-19 and Chamoli disaster are linked to uncontrolled destruction we unleash on the environment. Such disasters are difficult to predict. Whether we lose the place forever depends on our ability to restore environmental balance in the region.

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