Dehradun: Resumption of 'Char Dham yatra' after a gap of two COVID-marred years is a welcome development for thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on it, but the death of 78 pilgrims on way to the Himalayan temples in less than a month is causing concern.
Though the death of pilgrims on way to the high altitude shrines in Uttarakhand due to cardiac problems is something which happens every year, the toll is unusually high this season after the yatra commenced on May 3 with the opening of the Yamunotri and Gangotri temples.
A look at the data of pilgrim deaths in previous years shows that over 90 Char Dham devotees died in 2019, 102 in 2018 and 112 in 2017 during the entire season which lasts nearly six months from April-May to October-November every year.
Pradeep Bhardwaj, who heads Six Sigma Healthcare that provides free medical facilities in Kedarnath, attributed the high number of deaths to a combination of factors, including absence of an acclimatisation mechanism, weak immunity of pilgrims most of whom have COVID history, precarious weather and inadequate arrangements considering the heavy rush of pilgrims.
"As most of the pilgrims are not used to such high altitudes they should be given a break in their journey at lower heights to help them acclimatise themselves with the kind of weather they are going to confront in higher altitudes.
"They are not able to cope with the abrupt climatic change that they experience after coming from lower altitudes to the Himalayan temples located averagely at a height of 10,000 to 12,000 ft," Bhardwaj , a qualified doctor told PTI.
He said many pilgrims do not come with proper clothing as they are not aware of the extreme cold conditions prevailing in the high altitudes.
"We have noticed that many of those who died on the way to Kedarnath died of hypothermia which is caused by extreme cold conditions," he said.
The weather in Kedarnath often turns bad in the afternoon. A bright sunny day in no time gives way to overcast conditions with isolated rains. As there are no rain shelters within a 3- km radius of Kedarnath, pilgrims often get drenched and are finally down with hypothermia, he said.
Of the 78 deaths so far, Kedarnath has reported the highest number of pilgrim casualties with 41 fatalities.
Weak immunity of pilgrims who have COVID history is another reason for the high number of casualties, he said.
Health checks before the pilgrims begin the arduous trek to the temples is also a must.
There should be more community kitchens on the way to Kedarnath than there are, Bharadwaj said, adding that 50,000 pilgrims are coming in place of 10,000 and there are just three community kitchens to cater to them.
Drawing a comparison, he said there are 130 community kitchens on the way to Amarnath temple which is also visited by people from across the country like Kedarnath.
Health screening of pilgrims before they undertake the journey to the high altitudes should be done on a larger scale , Bhardwaj said.
Kedarnath-Badrinath Mandir Samiti chairman Ajendra Ajay said the pilgrims have ignored the health advisory issued by the state government.
"Pilgrim footfall at the Himalayan temples is much higher than their carrying capacity which is causing inconvenience to them.
"Despite the government's advisory that they should not undertake the journey if they have Covid history and suffer from post-coronavirus complications, they are setting out on the pilgrimage throwing all cares to the wind. It is proving fatal especially in the case of the elderly," Ajay told PTI.