Pilgrim Road Re-visited

By R S Tolia • Random Thoughts • 13 Aug 2014

Saturday the 2nd August 2014 will go down in the History of Uttarakhand as one of the days which very eloquently high-lighted the plight of the mountain regions in North India. The 273 km long Tanakput-Tawaghat National Highway, connecting the plains of Champawat-US Nagar-Nepal junction with Tawaghat ( ultimately Lipu-Lekh at Indo-China border ), saw its economic activity at its lowest ebb as all shops and establishments and transport services observed an unprecedented strike. The entire region, in voice, thus protested against the way the Border Roads Organisation has been constructing this strategically all too important Highway all these years. All civil socity organisations and even political parties supported what has been named as the “Mahabandh”. Typically, and at this stage, this ‘Total Bandh’ remained peaceful. Memorandums have been handed over to the district, sub-divisional authorities of the state and various offices of other Border Roads Organisation ( BRO ) at Tanakpur, Champawat and Pithoragarh. One delegation of Malla Johar Vikas Samiti similarly handed over a protest letter to the Coy Commander of the BRO set up at Darkot village, on behalf of Munsyari citizens.

Synonymous with Mountain Development

This historic Bandh must not be perceived either by the Modi Government or Harish Rawat Government as one of those protests where affected people conduct a symbolic protest so that a particular construction gets completed early. These three National Highways, moving east to west, linking Tanakpur to Lipu-lekh, Rishikesh to Mana-Niti and Vikasnagar to Gangotri-Nilang arguably are the most important economic activity which is central to developing the remotest ‘mountain regions’ of this state, rather the entire country. Indeed it is the best example of where ‘road-making’, sustainable road-making that is, is synonymous with ‘mountain development’. A synoptic look at the economic development, if the Indian Cities be taken as an example and parameter of civilizational development, would reveals that the oldest cities grew along the ‘rivers’ and river navigation was the first and fastest mode of communication. Rivers respect no geographical or political boundaries. Bishop Heber, the Calcutta Bishop, when he toured the Northern parts of the Bengal Presidency in  mid 1820s and also visited as inaccessible a city as Almora, gives us a graphic description of how he navigated the Ganga, Hoogly westwards, entering Ramnagar ( Kashi) and disembarking at Mirzapur to take the land-rote thereafter reaching Almora via Lucknow. Next round of city-developed, naturally were those where the older town got linked to the all-weather roads. The third phase belonged to those in addition to water-ways, road-links could also add the rail-ways, by all accounts a gift of England to India. The road and rail connectivity, once linked with the telegraphic/telephone connectivity have also been used for taking forward the Optical Fibre based internet connectivity. Yes, the air-connectivity today stands as the barometer of a City’s ranking. Frankly, this writer was quite happy to listen to Prime Minister Candidate Modi also mentioning this chronological phases of development of our country.

If this be the progress let us spare a few moment on where our mountain regions stand ? One obvious inference is that this progression of so-called development applies only to the plains regions of India. In the mountain regions the story is quite different. Mountains are the very source of rivers and in mountains we do not view the river –flows as a source of navigation. One would smile even at the hint of using mountain rivers as a communication way. No wonder we have no major, first age city, along a river side. Our first base of communication is and will remain for all times to come the road-surface communication. Railways, well for Uttarakhand, mountain regions that is, now it is ‘political joke’, rail-links to Bageshwar and Dev-prayag, always get talked about when we are in ‘election mode’. However, China has linked Eastern China with Lhasa and even more cities west of Lhasa, more-over showing that ‘perma-frost’ may be a problem that they have overcome already ! In Switzerland its amazing the way the tiny toy-like railway clim-up steep mountain slopes of Alps. Indian technology has yet to address the dense fog that delays air-traffic, even as the Chandrayan and landing on Mars are being tried. One thought our ‘mountain regions’ development should have been a preferred challenge over the Moon or the Mars. Air connectivity ? Yes we have now JollyGrant, another at Pantnagar, with only JollyGrant functional, linking Dehardun with New Delhi, period. We even now have a Helidrome, and three small air-strips dating back to Mulayam Singh Government days, at Naini-Saini, Pithoragarh, Gochar, Rudraprayag and Chinyalisaur, Uttar Kashi. Helicopetr services to Kedarnath do operate but for a very limited period and it is either for the politicians, or the senior bureaucrats who prefer ‘chopper’ over roads or then the likes of Anil Ambanis. Lately, private helicopters have been used to rescue calamity struck populations in Dharchula especially.

A careful reading of the paragraph preceding would immediately strike a reader how pathetically are the residents of our ‘mountain districts’ dependent on the road-communication, for almost everything. With water-ways, railways and air-ways out of consideration, on several counts, road-making becomes synonymous with ‘mountain development’. the politicians and the Mandarins of the Ministry of Environment & Forests would not be able to understand what it means to remain dependent on a single option of communication i.e. roads, when all other options are closely shut. Forest-land transfer and environment clearances, the delays that take place in them are to be understood in this context. Timely and qualitative road-making also, has to be understood in that context. As the latter has not happened in a single day, or for a specific road, but it has taken almost 200 years of recorded history, of this region, that has been expressed in this Mahabandh of 2nd August, 2014.  

The Pilgrim Road

When this writer was working on his PhD thesis and interesting fact came to his notice that the celebrated second Kumaon Commissioner, George William Traill ( 1815-35 ), took a great amount of interest in improving the road-link between Srinagar ( Pauri came much later, when the SAC preferred it as his headquarters, as Srinagar was rather hot for officers with their Scottish pedigree ) and Kankhal ( Haridwar ). The first geographical survey of the route to the source of the Bhagirathi ( Ganga ) by Captain Raper and Lt Webb in 1810 had already demonstrated in what a pathetic state was this route, both from Kankhal to Barahat ( Uttarkashi) and later Mana. Commissioner Traill it was who risked his official career as well as a reputation as a Christian when he gave development of the Pilgrim Route the top most importance. He also promoted the Indo-Tibetan trade, and the Shauka traders, as in the absence of any source of transport, it were they who enabled import of commodities fro the western Tibet, and export of grains and cereals grown in the central part of Garhwal and Kumaon, with no all-weather road links to the nearest mandis in the plains. The annual trade fairs at Bageshwar, Thal and Jauljibi, in Kumaoni districts and Gauchar, in Garhwal date back to those days of Uttarakhand when it was almost an inaccessible ‘Province’. It was with the arrival of the British rule in 1815, almost 200 years ago, that our mountain regions were introduced to an intervention called road-making.

No wonder, beside the Pilgrim Road, as the route to Badrinath ( Kedarnath route was literally marked by Commissioner Traill , who according to a severe critic of Traill, hung himself up in rope, over the dangerous Kedar-glen and marked the route that should be developed. While this earned Traill severe criticism of his fellow-Christians but won him an abiding respect of those hill-men who partook of his Herculean efforts. It has been said for this benevolence the ‘Paharis’ ranked him next only to Lord Vishnu ! That Kedarnath route has always taken its toll of lives, even as late as the entry of the British rule at the turn of the nineteenth century, is also a recoded fact. The ;point being made here is that the fact that in hills, for their development, there is no priority higher than making all-weather and safe road. In the beginning road-making used to be with the Army and it was after a severe criticism of the roads which were being made, quite like the present Mahabandh against the Border Road Organisation, that road making was made over to the civil authorities, the Public Works Department ( PWD ). It was the lack of control and supervision over road making by an agency which was not under the  local and civil authorities, that it was taken away from the Army. Almost it is precisely after almost more than 150 years that a protest of this dimension has been registered. It is high time that the entire architecture, supervision, funding, maintenance, and other co-ordinational arrangements of road making in the mountain regions get comprehensively reviewed by Government of India and Uttarakhand jointly.   

As Commissioner Traill considered giving top priority to an improved, all-weather Pilgrim Road, even as early as 1820s and 1830s, not because it was important from the pilgrims point of view of their safety and ease but for an accelerated development of the remote mountain regions, connecting their surplus produce to the nearest markets, fetching better prices for their hard-earned labour, similarly considerable improvement of the present National Highways linking the Himalayan foot-hills with the international border- junctions, Nilang, Mans, Niti, Unta-dhura in Johar, Darma and Byanse ( Lipu-lekh) for economic, social development and safety of our border-lands, must receive top most priority. Both the Roads, incidently, also happen to be Pilgrim Road, one linking Indian pilgrims to the Yamunotri-Gangotri-Kedarnath and Badrinath in western Uttarakhand and Mansarovar-Kailas destinations via the Eastern Uttarakhand.  The second, their religious and cultural importance is next only to the over all development of our ‘mountain regions’.

Past Three Decades :Regulation, Expansion and Widening 

This writer could have recounted various stages of development of this so-called Pilgrim Road, and that one now joining her in the Eastern part of Uttarakhand, have experienced since 1829, the first year Commissioner Traill officially mentioned the main reason for his taking so much interest in the original Pilgrim Road, e.g. how later Commissioners SC Singha and SK Misra, Garhwal and Kumaon Commissioners respectively, strongly criticized the’ One Way Traffic regulation’, or the “Gate System” as it used to be called ( it seems like ancient history to one who toured under that regime of traffic in the hills ), in mid 1970s, statistically proving that there were more casualties and accidents under this mechanism compared to when it was removed, and finally won their point ultimately; the various ‘experiments to stabilize the degraded slopes due to road-widening’ and so on, and the widening of the Badrinath Road under Premier Bajpei’s Government, removal of several stages in giving forest-land transfer clearances during the Hill Development days of UP, and so on, but for space constraints of an article in  news-paper.

Road Development Authority of Uttarakhand ( RDAI)                                                                                                                                                                                   

The bottom-line of the entire trajectory of experiences gained in road-making in Utarakhand it seems imperative that road-making must be acknowledged as central to and synonymous with ‘mountain development’, given the argument that this is the only mode of communication and transport of good and services as well in our mountain regions. Just as there now exists a National Highway Authority of India ( NHAI), fast-forwarding the linking of India through multi-lane roads ( Imperial Roads, as British called it; the Golden Trapezium of  Independent India ) a similar high-powered administrative architecture must be brought forward, both for Linking the Mountain Regions of Utarakhand, through making of international class, all-weather roads, which are functional 24×7. This Authorty must also look after, also be authorised to provide any kind of sanction, administrative, financial, environmental and so on, through a multi-departmental Group system, each with a strict time schedule. Needless to say that the following should be its contour :

( i )     The RDAI should supervise all roads, BRO, PWD, NH and District Roads,

( ii ) All departments related to all kinds of clearances forest, environmental, administrative, land acquisition, compensation and financial sanctions must be represented in it, with the necessary departmental powers,

( iii ) The PWD should become the Nodal department to anchor this RDAI till such time road-making functions and responsibilities are ultimately hived into ( i ) District and Above and ( ii ) District and Below,

( iv ) All roads, District and Above must be covered by a Road –side Control Act, with far stricter penalties for violating it and its application should be made along with the first Notification of any new Road, all existing roads should immediately be Notified under the existing Road-side Control,Act, starting with BRO and NH and Other District Roads. Existing and under-construction road-side constructions should be ruthlessly demolished,

( v ) As roads are the major catalysts of development, the only one in the mountains as explained at the beginning, the Urban Development and Housing and Tourim department must also become an integral part of this RDAI.

Tail-piece :

The ‘Mahabandh’ ( Mother of all strikes ) organized on the 2nd August 2014 against the Border Roads Organisation should now be converted into a Movement, and not remain just a one-off event, which should now be taken to its logical end, namely a far better road-making and development regime than what exists today, and both the Governments should be asked to work in tandem and not convert the opportunity into a usual ‘blame-game’. Good Road Connectivity, being central to mountain development, must not be seen through a political-lens and it must now be given the highest priority. A CBI enquiry alone will disclose how estimates have been fudged, over-payments and fictitious payments made as there is virtually no oversight arrangements, where even the district magistrates and sub-divisional magistrates refuse to go. ITBP, being the only other presence besides the Army, have in their own wisdom never thought it worth-while how such over-delayed and low-quality construction is impacting on their own functioning and seriously compromising our national security. It would be interesting to know what reporting our ITBP establishments have been making on this scandalously delayed, inefficient and corrupt road-making operations ? Their own conduct, in so far as their co-operation and collaboration with our border-people is concerned, has also left a lot to be desired. Hope they also learn their very own lessons in public dealing lest that also reaches the proverbial ‘the last straw’ situation. This author had serious remarks to offer on the same when he officially visited Purang, the first official Trade and Tourism Delegation, as Secretary, Uttarakhand Dev Deptt, UP ( 1993). 

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