NEAR THE confluence of the Mandakini and Saraswati rivers, pilgrims stop to view the Kedarnath shrine. This is the first time in decades that they have an unfettered view, from a distance of almost a thousand feet from the shrine. The cluster of encroachments has been cleared, instead there is a 52-foot-wide road freshly laid with tiles made from the local Khaloot stone.
Walk down this road and an orderly line of pilgrims begins about 150 feet from the shrine that’s brightly lit by blue, orange and red LED lights.
“This approach road wasn’t there when I was here last year,” said Navaneetha Krishnan, a regular visitor from Bengaluru. “It was just stones and gravel, the tiles have made it very comfortable to walk on.”
This road is part of the infrastructure upgrade that’s happened six months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Kedarnath and laid the foundation stone for five projects at Kedarpuri. Besides the road, these included construction of ghats and retaining walls on rivers Mandakini and Saraswati, construction of houses for the teerth purohits (priests), and construction of a grand ‘samadhi sthal’ for Adi Sankara.
In the first winter since then, a team of up to 600, labourers and Uttarakhand government officials, camped at Kedarpuri —the 13-acre township where Kedarnath is.
Working amid snow and in temperatures ranging from minus 3 to minus 15 degrees Celsius, they cleared the dilapidated buildings and a mountain of debris from the June 2013 deluge when flash floods killed at least 4,000 pilgrims. To make way for the new approach road.
Mahinder Singh (34), a mason working at the shrine, recalls: “The winter months were so cold that it would be difficult to even hold a chisel.”
The task was cut out. After the deluge, the pilgrim footfall at Kedarnath, which would cross 5 lakh a year, reduced to a trickle of 40,922 in 2014.
Since then, however, due to continuous reconstruction after the deluge and the boost since October, the pilgrims are returning – in 2017, over 4.7 lakh pilgrims visited the shrine.
There is unfinished work. Speaking to The Indian Express, Rudraprayag District Magistrate Mangesh Ghildiyal said, “Work is ongoing on the widening of the approach road, construction of ghats and retaining walls along the Mandakini and Saraswati rivers. The first phase of which, costing Rs 125 crore, will be completed by September, this year.”
Ghildiyal admits that the construction of housing units for the priests will take much more time given that it will need an ecologically sensitive design. Moreover, a final design clearance for the ‘samadhi sthal’ of Adi Sankara is awaited from the Prime Minister’s Office.
About a kilometre uphill from the shrine, five persons from the Uttarkashi-based Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) are busy building a wall in front of a cave to develop it as “meditation cave” — this is another of the new projects in the works.
The cave that can accommodate at least two persons at a time will take up to two months to finish, Ghildiyal said. Once done, it will provide a “new spiritual experience to visitors,” he said.
For Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Rawat, the upgrade timer is ticking. “The Centre and the state governments are committed to rebuilding a safe Kedarnath which has all the facilities for pilgrims,” Rawat told The Indian Express.
Said BJP MP from Uttarakhand Anil Baluni: “The Prime Minister is aware of the difficulties of working in a tough and challenging terrain like Kedarnath, so he is quite appreciative of the progress of the ongoing works.”
After laying the foundation stone of the projects, Modi has reviewed the ongoing works twice – on February 28 and April 25.
Sources said that at the review meeting, state government officials were told to develop Kedarpuri into a “smart pilgrimage centre”. Work towards that has begun as drinking water connections and sewage lines in Kedarpuri are being laid underground, said state Tourism Secretary Dilip Jawalkar.
The “smart centre” envisages upgraded lighting facilities, fast-speed and reliable internet access, and a strong mobile phone network. The need for this is felt here every day, especially as darkness falls.
On Saturday, at 10:30 pm, and in pitch dark, three elderly pilgrims from Maharashtra – one man and two women – are trying to trace their relatives. “The mobile phone doesn’t work here… how will we find them?” asked the man. A priest, subsequently, escorted them to their relatives.
Only BSNL and Reliance Jio provide a network in the Kedarnath Valley, but these are also unreliable.
“The network connectivity here is one of our primary challenges,” said Jawalkar.
While the approach road has been revamped, the 16-km trek route from Gaurikund — the final stop from where the walk to the shrine begins – is in need of repair and reinforcement. The Rs 6,350-chopper ride from here to the shrine and back is unaffordable for many who have to walk the route.
“The rains, the mud on the road, and mule excreta have made the trek route very slippery. We witnessed two people getting injured as mules carrying them slipped on the trek route,” said Ekta Sharma, a pilgrim from Delhi.
Said Ghilidiyal: “We have put a team on it to assess what needs to be done. However, for now, we have deployed labourers to regularly clear the mule excreta from the trek route so that the route doesn’t get slippery.”
An added dimension to the challenge is the sensitive nature of the debris. Said Pradeep Srivastava, a landscape geologist at the Dehradun-based Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology and a co-author of the report submitted to the Centre after the 2013 floods, “We had mentioned clearly in the report that the glacial debris deposited at Kedarpuri must not be touched since it’s unstable.”
“We are not touching these boulders that were deposited,” said Ghildiyal. But when told that The Indian Express had seen local construction teams breaking these boulders near the shrine, he said, “These are not the boulders that came down from the glaciers, these are rocks from the rivers.”
At the shrine premises, there are conspicuous banners and standees of Modi and Rawat with the logo of a laser show on Lord Shiva.
On April 28, at around 7 pm, as rain lashed Kedarnath, hundreds of pilgrims stood with umbrellas as one of the walls of the Kedarnath shrine transformed into a screen for a 24-minute show on Lord Shiva.
While the BJP claims “credit” for all the ongoing reconstruction activity, president of the Badrinath-Kedarnath Temple Committee Ganesh Godiyal, who is a former Congress minister, said: “Most of these works were initiated by the Congress.”
The Congress government under Harish Rawat had built a protection wall behind the shrine. Also, new accommodation was built for pilgrims, and work on the ghats and retaining walls along the rivers Mandakini and Saraswati were started.
Of course, work began after the floods, say BJP leaders, but the Prime Minister’s reviews have kept it on the frontburner. Said Chief Minister Trivendra Rawat: “This isn’t a contest for credit for reconstruction activities. One must not connect faith with politics.”