As the prime minister flew in and out of the temple town of Kedarnath in an army chopper today, pilgrims took to Twitter to complain about the suspension of helicopter services to the shrine following a directive by the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
The NGT had issued a notice to the Uttarakhand government last month, asking it to give directions to helicopter operators on permissible noise levels and the altitude at which a chopper could fly over the eco-sensitive zone of the Kedarnath Wildflife Sanctuary. However, differences between the Uttarakhand Civil Aviation Development Authority (UCADA) and 14 helicopter operators resulted in a suspension of chopper services till May 5.
The Twitter protest gathered ground as the 8th-century Kedarnath temple re-opened today after staying shut for six months, marking the beginning of the pilgrim season in the hill town. “Helicopter services to Kedarnath stopped. Thousands of pilgrims suffering. Take action immediately,” tweeted netizen R Vijaya Kumar.
Another Tweet addressed the prime minister, who offered prayers at the Shiva shrine when it opened today. “…today you had your darshana at Kedarnath but why helicopter ride is stopped for 3 days,” complained Kasturi Srinivasan. “We have heart condition, arthritis, diabetes people AND we are scheduled to go tomorrow but we can’t take pony or walk. Please help.”
Shankar San Dubey tweeted, “@narendramodi sir, u visited Kedarnath on Helicopter but all other passengers waiting for approval from government so that they can use helicopter.” Following the NGT order, the UCADA issued a directive to chopper companies on April 29. It said helicopters could not exceed noise levels of 50 decibels and mandated that they should fly at an altitude of at least 2000 feet.
The operators said the restrictions were unreasonable. “No helicopter will have a noise level as low as 50 decibels. The helicopters used in Kedarnath have certified noise levels of 84-86 decibels,” said Wangchuk Shamshu, co-founder, Himalayan Heli Services.
Shamsu pointed out that their operations entailed flying over valleys and gorges. “There are points when we are barely 100 feet above land mass. Therefore, the limit of at least 2000 feet is irrational,” Shamsu said.
The 14 helicopter operators affected by this order also met officials of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) here yesterday.
A senior DGCA official said it had written to the Uttarakhand government highlighting the concerns shared by the operators. The DGCA would carry out a safety compliance inspection on the Kedarnath route once the guidelines were revised. The UCADA has now called a meeting tomorrow with representatives of the chopper companies.