Kailash pilgrims to take on ‘butcher’ tour operator (With Images)

June 14th, 2009 - 4:32 pm ICT by IANS  

Sonia Gandhi By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu, June 14 (IANS) “We will take you on a four-star tour of Mt. Kailash and the Mansarovar,” a New Delhi-based tour operator promised Rajendra Harsh, a 52-year-old financial consultant from Ahmedabad. But what Harsh and his family and others on the tough mountain pilgrimage got instead was a trip devoid of basic necessities, like oxygen or medicines.

The glossy brochure the tour operator handed out to Harsh and other pilgrims from Jodhpur, Bangalore, Chennai, Pune, New Delhi and the US had attractive photographs of luxury hotels and promised unforgettable service.

And all this bliss for 16 days for only Rs.80,000 per person with a 10 percent discount for early birds who signed up first.

In reality, the Harsh family, including his wife Anjana, daughter and mother-in-law, ended up paying more than Rs.10 lakh (Rs. 1 million/$20,000). Also, they almost lost Anjana, who lay in a state of unconsciousness for three days due to lack of food, water, medicines and oxygen.

The 56 pilgrims, who flew back to India Saturday, had tales of horror. Of them, only 15 made it to Mt Kailash, the rest either fell sick or lost their morale and opted not to go up further.

While Mt Kailash rises 6,638 m above sea level, the nearby Mansarovar lake lies at 4,556 m. They are held sacred by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains alike.

Anjana Harsh had to be evacuated by helicopter, for which the family had to pay an additional Rs.600,000 — when the rate for helicopter tours of Mt Kailash by the same tour agency is about Rs.1.35 lakh per person.

“We were not human beings to him,” says Pandit Navratan Yash, a 39-year-old priest from Jodhpur, referring to the tour operator. “To him, we meant just profit. The fewer of us made it to Mt Kailash, the better it was for him since he saved money on transport and other overheads. There was a pre-planned systematic campaign to demoralise us and ratchet up his profit, without caring for our lives.”

While the brochure said all the vehicles would have oxygen cylinders, needed due to breathing difficulties in the high altitude, doctors and life-saving medicines, there was none.

For 56 people, there were only two and a half cylinders of oxygen and 20 sleeping bags. The pilgrims were herded four to five to a room in lodges where there were no toilets, food or water.

“Sometimes we had to go out to relieve ourselves,” said the Harshs’ 19-year-old daughter Soumyaa. “The temperature was sub zero and there would be wild dogs prowling round.”

In one place, they had to wait in freezing temperature for five hours in the night, getting a hotel room only at 3 a.m.

“It was a nightmare,” says Yash. “At 6 a.m, when we were groggy with sleep and exhaustion, the hotel owner threw us out with our luggage, saying he was expecting a group of foreigners.”

In another place, the operator said there was no available hotel. So the 56 exhausted pilgrims spent the night lying on the floor of a hall with no blanket or food. Three travellers fell ill after that night and had to return to India.

On June 5, Anjana Harsh fell unconscious.

“She survived only because there were two doctors in our group who were carrying their own medical kits,” Harsh said. The panic-stricken family decided to return to Kathmandu.

“It was a nightmare,” says Tara Joshi, Anjana’s 67-year-old mother. Even as Anjana flitted between life and death, the tour operator haggled for money, refusing to arrange a helicopter till they had made partial payments through friends in India. Then the Harshs’ passports were seized by the agency for security.

Finally, once a helicopter was arranged, to reach the helipad, the family had to cross stretches of unmotorable land covered by jungles and a river. The unconscious Anjana was put in a barrow meant to carry construction material and wheeled on.

More shocks waited them at the helipad.

“The pilot refused to carry more than two,” says Harsh. “He said I would have to leave my daughter and mother-in-law behind in the wilderness as two Maoist cadres from the locality would have to be airlifted. But god intervened in the form of the villagers, who made him carry all four of us.”

When they return to Ahmedabad, Harsh is planning to sue the operator and get his licence scrapped in India, China and Nepal so that other pilgrims in future are saved from being “butchered”.

He has already started a campaign, filing a First Information Report with the Indian embassy in Kathmandu and complaining to the Prime Minister’s Office in New Delhi, the Indian tourism ministry, office of the Gujarat chief minister and the chief justice of India.

More members of the group say they will stand behind him in the fight.

“I am a Congress party member,” says Ashok Vohra, a 43-year-old businessman from Jodhpur. “I had gone to China in 1988 as part of Rajiv Gandhi’s entourage. I am going to meet (Congress president) Sonia Gandhi and ask her to intervene.”

The pilgrimage organised by the Indian government passes through the state of Uttarakhand. Pilgrims are put through exhaustive medical fitness tests prior to the trip.

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