Char Dham Yatra 2024: Unprepared Tourists & Inadequate Infrastructure Cause Safety Concerns

The Char Dham pilgrimage faces overcrowding as record tourist numbers overwhelm infrastructure, leading to medical emergencies and frustration for devotees
Throng of devotees at Kedarnath
Throng of devotees at KedarnathShutterstock

India's holy Char Dham Yatra pilgrimage began on May 10, encompassing the revered sites of Gangotri, Kedarnath, Badrinath, and Yamunotri. But within days, a troubling scene emerged. Social media was flooded with images showing a narrow road crammed with thousands of devotees attempting to reach Yamunotri. This route sits wedged between a mountain and a deep trench. The crowd included people of all ages, from young children to the elderly, women, and even hundreds of mules.

In addition to the concerns, reports indicate a significant surge in tourist numbers for this year's Char Dham Yatra compared to 2023. As of May 24, official figures show a staggering 9.67 lakh pilgrims visiting the pilgrimage sites since May 10, with Kedarnath leading the pack at 4.24 lakh visitors. However, this rise in visitors comes with a grim shadow.

According to data from the health department, nearly 60 pilgrims, mostly those over 60 years old, have died from heart attacks during the Yatra so far. Kedarnath again tops this tragic list with 28 fatalities. While this pales compared to the single-day disaster of 2023, where Kedarnath witnessed 23 deaths due to heavy snowfall, the overall rise in fatalities is a cause for concern.

Voices Of Devotees

Prakhar Narayan, an accountant from Delhi NCR, experienced these challenges firsthand on his journey to Kedarnath, which started on May 15. His trip was smooth up to Rishikesh, but after that, the road to Sonprayag—around 18km from Kedarnath—became a nightmare due to heavy traffic.

"I caught a bus from Rishikesh around 8:30 am, but the traffic became unbearable just past Pata, a small village on the way to Kedarnath. As the sun began to set, I realised I needed to hurry. I got off the bus and started walking towards Sonprayag, covering 5-6 kilometres on foot and arriving around 8-9 pm. From Sonprayag, I took a Bolero to Gauri Kund, where I stayed overnight in a dormitory," Narayan told OT. 

However, Narayan's troubles continued. The following day, chaos erupted among the pilgrims regarding a temple entry token despite pre-registering. "Even though I had pre-registered," Narayan said, "there was confusion among everyone, myself included, about needing a token. Thankfully, it was later clarified that only the registration coupon was necessary."

Narayan outside the Kedarnath temple
Narayan outside the Kedarnath templeOn special arrangement

Adding to the inconvenience, the promised washroom in the dormitory was not functional. Narayan was forced to find separate restrooms, one each for men and women, only to be met with long lines of about 50-60 people. After completing the gruelling 22-kilometre trek to reach the temple, he finally rested for a few hours. "Despite the early start, I joined the queue for darshan at 4.30 am and finally finished around 8.30-9 am."

Shivendra Pandey, from Varanasi, shared a similar experience. On May 14, his parents, Krishan Kumar Pandey (55) and Rekha Pandey (52) embarked on a pilgrimage to Yamunotri, the source of the Yamuna River. However, their journey hit a roadblock near Barkot, roughly 50 kilometres from Yamunotri and 60 kilometres from Uttarkashi. Their car got stuck in a traffic jam that lasted the entire day on May 15. 

Pandey's parents on their pilgrimage
Pandey's parents on their pilgrimageOn special arrangement

Trapped in their car, they faced a lack of basic amenities.  With no access to food and accommodation facilities, they managed to fill their water bottles from a nearby stream. "I called many people and helpline numbers to understand why there was such a massive jam," Pandey explained. "I learned that the parking is full, and only when some cars start descending will they allow the vehicles stuck in the traffic to move." His parents' ordeal ended around 4 am on May 16 when their car was permitted to move.

Inside The ER

Dr Sushil Yadav (MD, MBBS), a medical officer at the Swami Vivekanand Charitable Hospital at the Kedarnath Base Camp for the past three years, has observed an increase in tourist-related medical cases since the Char Dham Yatra began this season.

"Many visitors, particularly those from hotter regions in South India, underestimate the Char Dham's climate," Dr Yadav explained. "They arrive unprepared for the cold, wearing light clothing like shorts and t-shirts, which can lead to hypothermia. Even during peak summer, temperatures here can range from 10-12 degrees Celsius, a stark contrast to the 30-40 degrees Celsius they might be accustomed to."

The trek to Kedarnath is long and arduous
The trek to Kedarnath is long and arduousShutterstock

He also highlighted the issue of tourists neglecting to bring essential medications. "We've seen instances where individuals with pre-existing conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure forget their medication, putting themselves at risk for complications like heart attacks."

The hospital currently manages a significant patient load: "On average, we treat around 1500 patients in the OPD and handle approximately 250 emergency cases," Dr. Yadav said.

To ensure a safe pilgrimage, Dr Yadav emphasised the importance of prioritising health checks, particularly for individuals with age-related concerns or existing conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, asthma, lung issues, or heart problems. He recommended a full-body checkup before undertaking the Yatra. "Pack appropriately for the weather. Bring warm clothing suitable for the region's cooler temperatures rather than packing based on your home climate. And don't forget your medication; ensure you carry all necessary medicines for your trip."

What Do the Authorities Say?

While the Char Dham pilgrimage attracts millions of devotees each year, it also faces overcrowding and challenges in managing visitor flow. While it is crucial to acknowledge these issues, steps are being taken to address them.

One concern is the strain on resources due to unpredictable arrival patterns. Sachin Kurve, Secretary of Tourism and CEO of Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board explained, "The Char Dham Yatra remains open for close to six months. Some devotees either do not register at all or visit on dates different from those they registered for. This creates a big problem accommodating them since the facilities are limited."

Kurve also highlighted that the geographical locations of the four Dhams make the registration process essential for the benefit of pilgrims. "Due to limited holding capacity, registration is crucial to ensure a smooth experience for everyone," he stated. "We strongly encourage pilgrims to register in advance. Additionally, we request the support of tour operators and travel agents in guiding pilgrims through the registration process and to avoid booking packages without securing registration first." News reports back up Kurve's claims. Recently, more than 650 pilgrims were denied entry to Badrinath—which can only handle around 20,000 visitors daily—because they didn't register beforehand. 


What Steps Have Been Taken?

Authorities have implemented several measures to manage the increasing number of tourists visiting the Char Dham temples. To prevent the spread of fake news that could cause chaos, mobile phone use is now prohibited within 200 meters of the temple grounds. Additionally, mandatory medical screenings have been introduced for pilgrims over 50. These screenings occur along the route to the temples, and those deemed unfit for the challenging journey are advised to return.

Furthermore, the Uttarkashi district authorities have restricted horse and mule traffic on the Yamunotri Dham route to ensure a smoother, safer pilgrimage. A maximum of 800 animals are allowed between Janki Chatti and Yamunotri from 4 am to 5 pm. Beyond Ghoda Padav, horses, mules, and walking sticks are banned. This order, issued under relevant legal provisions, aims to maintain order and safety for pilgrims.


Finally, due to the ongoing surge in pilgrims, the Uttarakhand government has extended the ban on VIP Darshan (special entry for dignitaries) until the end of May. Daily pilgrim limits have also been set—Badrinath is limited to 20,000 pilgrims per day, Kedarnath to 18,000, Gangotri to 11,000, and Yamunotri to 9,000.

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