Badrinath Master Plan: Development script or disaster manual?

The Uttarakhand government might be repeating a 50-year-old misstep which had been stopped in the nick of time after widespread agitations  

By Hridayesh Joshi
Published: Wednesday 14 June 2023
Structures with a 75-metre radius of the Badrinath Temple are being demolished. Photo: Hridayesh Joshi

“We are seven brothers and we had seven shops here. We have been earning our living for the last several decades by selling items required for religious rituals, clothes and utensils in these shops. In March, the administration reduced everything to rubble without giving any notice,” Dinesh Chandra Dimri, 60, expressed his anger to this reporter amid the debris of his broken shops.

The businesses of many shopkeepers have suffered fates similar to those of the Brothers Dimri. This is being done under the new master plan for the pilgrim town of Badrinath and many like Dinesh are very angry with the haste with which the Uttarakhand government is carrying out its drive.

But in Badrinath today, the issue is twofold: On the one hand, there is resentment over the inadequate compensation and rehabilitation among those who have been at the receiving end. On the other, there is a crisis caused by heavy construction and excavation in the sensitive landscapes of the Himalayas.

‘Smart Spiritual Hilltown’ Badrinath

Badrinath is one of the four Dhams or pilgrimage sites that together form the Badrinath-Kedarnath-Gangotri-Yamunotri Pilgrimage Circuit.

The town is in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district and is at an altitude of 3,133 metres (10,279 feet) above sea level and is visited by millions of Hindu pilgrims and tourists every year.

In 2020, the government prepared a master plan for Badrinath on the lines of Kedarnath and sent it to the Prime Minister’s Office, whose budget at that time was Rs 424 crore.

State Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami said before the last assembly elections that the master plan has been prepared under the direction of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Though Dhami had then pegged the budget of the master plan at Rs 250 crore, there was no clarity on the expenditure. But Chamoli District Magistrate Himanshu Khurana told this reporter that work is being done in Badrinath in a phased manner under the master plan and the expenditure will be calculated accordingly. According to sources, this budget can be cross Rs 600 crore.

The government has removed all structures constructed within a radius of 75 metres around the Badrinath temple so that the grandeur of the temple is visible to all as part of the plan.

The plan also proposes constructing the Alaknanda River Front and Plaza near the temple. There will also be a community cloak room, queue arrangements for pilgrims, beautification of lakes, roads and parking arrangements.

The government says all this will make Badrinath more ‘orderly and beautiful’ and transform it into a ‘smart spiritual hill town’.

Compensation and public anger

But locals say that rules were flouted in implementing the master plan and people did not get a chance to register their objections. There is a provision in the Uttarakhand Urban and Country Planning and Development Act to monitor the manner in which the master plan is implemented.

According to the rules in Chapter III of the Act, a draft master plan should be published first and all parties should get an opportunity to file objections.

But Jamna Prasad Rewani, chairman of the Sangharsh Committee on the Badrinath Master Plan, said, “The government demolished many houses without permission. Even though the acquisition is taking place within a radius of 75 metres around the temple, 90 per cent of the people have not given any no objection certificate (NOC) nor has any compensation been given to them. They will not give the NOC unless they get proper compensation.”

Local shopkeeper Dinesh Dimri, with his friend Baldev Mehta. Photo: Hridayesh Joshi

But District Magistrate Himanshu Khurana said he had interacted directly with more than 350 people so far to discuss rehabilitation. The compensation policy for locals was decided based on the suggestions of the public.

“We know that people’s employment here is linked to the Badrinath Temple and a lot of them do not want to leave the place. This location may be small but a very large economy is connected to the people. So, we have increased the circle rate by 170 per cent and decided that the compensation amount will be double the circle rate. Even after that, if someone does not want to take compensation, then the government will rehabilitate them by making a shop or building for them,” Khurana said.

Ajendra Ajay, chairman of the Badri-Kedar Temple Committee, said, “When such a big project takes place, everyone wants a settlement fashioned according to their choice. But that is not possible. Therefore, the government has given options to the people by making a common policy.”

Rising pilgrim numbers

The number of people visiting Badrinath has increased rapidly in the last 50 years. According to the state tourism department, over 4 million people undertook the Char Dham Yatra in 2022 alone.

Till the 1980s, there were no more than 0.3 or 0.35 million tourists per year. But in the last 30 years, the number of tourists visiting Badrinath has risen more than 10 times. Obviously, the need for a master plan or a new action plan cannot be ruled out.

Justifying the current work, Khurana said, “Disaster management is also a big issue in such places. If there is a disaster, we need empty space (for relief work) immediately. The area around the temple is very sensitive and has become cluttered over the years. The irrigation department has done anti-avalanche work here earlier. Which is why the area was evacuated.”

Geologists question construction

Geologists, though, are concerned about the sensitive geographical makeup of the Badrinath region and the increasing extreme weather events due to climate change.

SP Sati, head geologist of the Department of Social Sciences, College of Forestry at Rani Chauri (Tehri) Campus, has been researching the geological makeup of the region.

He does not accept the argument that the current construction is being done from the disaster management perspective. Instead, such an effort will increase the risk of disaster, according to Sati.

Sati said the Badrinath valley is more vulnerable than Joshimath – which has been witnessing continuous landslides over the past few months. According to him, Badrinath is a glacial valley where glaciers existed till about 15 years ago.

Sati told this reporter, “There is more danger in Badrinath than Joshimath. In terms of makeup of the land, this valley is not in the shape of a ‘V’ but is in the shape of a ‘U’ and the mountains stand vertically. On both sides, there are glacial moraines on which the town stands. It is loose, unconsolidated glacial material (moraine). Its load carrying capacity is low and it is dangerous to carry out heavy construction here.”

Professor Mahendra Pratap Singh Bisht, a geologist, taught at The Hemwati Nandan Bahugana University in Garhwal for several years. He has published a paper on the geomorphological hazards of Badrinath along with two other scientists Manish Mehta and S K Nautiyal. The research paper calls for a “complete ban” on any construction on the “highly temporary and active weak slopes” of Badrinath.

Bisht said, “Existing structures there (in Badrinath) stand on accumulated debris and sediment left by glaciers. This sediment is loose and temporary. It is not solid and stable and there is no permanent bedrock. If you remove or move a boulder for a new construction and pierce the slope, cracks can naturally arise.”

When asked about this, Khurana said he would not be able to speak on the technical aspects of the construction. But he added that the work was being done only after consulting experts.

Experts from the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehradun, National Institute of Hydrology, Geological Survey of India and Defense Geoinformatics Research Establishment have been consulted, Khurana said.

But is the government really heeding the advice of experts? Experts from some of these institutes were contacted by this reporter, who admitted that the current construction is not suitable for the sensitive ecology of the region.

A precedent 

Efforts to rejuvenate Badrinath also took place in the 1970s, against which well-known Sarvodayi leader Chandi Prasad Bhatt and other environmentalists protested.

Intensive construction activity was taking place in the town with the help of the Birla Group’s Jayashree Trust. At that time, a 22-feet high concrete wall had been erected near the temple and many other construction works were to be carried out. The Chipko movement to save the forests of Uttarakhand (then part of undivided Uttar Pradesh) was on in full swing.

Bhatt went to Lucknow and met the then Chief Minister Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna and informed him about the ongoing construction in Badrinath. On July 13, 1974, Bahuguna formed a committee under the chairmanship of Finance Minister Narayan Dutt Tiwari. M N Deshpande, head of the Archaeological Survey of India, was also a member of the committee. After the committee gave its recommendations, the work was stopped and the wall was demolished.

Bhatt told this reporter, “Even at that time, there was an attempt to ignore us and we were opposed. It was only after great struggle and the recommendations of experts that the construction came to a halt. The government still needs to listen to experts. I had written in 2009 about a possible disaster in Kedarnath but it was ignored. Then we saw the 2013 disaster (in Kedarnath). If we do not listen to experts again, the same can happen. Later, we will blame nature or rivers whereas disasters are human-made. Therefore, (warnings) of experts should be heeded to.”

Spectre of climate change

Baldev Mehta is the owner of Nar Narayan Guest House in Badrinath. He said, “Badrinath has been witnessing mindless demolition for the last one-and-a-half years, but no one has yet comprehended the magnitude of it all. Ghats on both sides of the Alaknanda have been broken and if the water level of Alaknanda increases in the coming days, then there is a huge risk of floods.”

Sati said Mehta’s concern was justified, given that locals understood the nature of rivers and soil as they had been living in the region for many decades. He added that it was important to understand the sensitivity of Badrinath in view of the dangers posed by climate change.

“The graph of unusual and unexpected rainfall is increasing in this region,” said Sati. “There are incidents of cloudbursts and mountain slopes keep sliding. It is increasingly difficult to tell how much water will suddenly discharge into the river channel, which is a problem being faced across the Himalayas. In such a situation, it is not right to construct structures rich in cement and iron.”

Bisht said the excavation done for constructing structures in the area will have an impact on the streams and springs. “There are five streams in Badrinath and they have religious significance. But excavation can change the location of the underground sources of these streams and they then cannot be brought back to their original state.” 

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