Millennium Post

Pilgrim’s progress

Finally somebody has taken notice of the pilgrims dying on way to the Amarnath cave in Jammu and Kashmir. Last week the Supreme Court, taking cognisance of the media reports of the unusually high number of the deaths of devotees visiting ice Shivlinga at 11,000 feet [about 90 at the last count], appointed a panel headed by the Jammu and Kashmir governor, to find reasons for the growing number of deaths.

The panel will include the secretaries of the home and environment ministries, and the director generals of Border Security Force (BSF), Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Border Roads Organisation (BRO). The Jammu and Kashmir chief secretary will be the nodal officer of the panel. It will also have representatives of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board. The Supreme Court has set 13 August deadline for the submission of the report, following which they propose to issue directions.

Realising that its order of Friday could open a Pandora’s Box all over again, the apex court bench did also sound a note of caution. ‘It is a delicate issue. It requires thinking at all levels. You have to find some permanent solution and fixing of guidelines coupled with fixing of responsibility,’ the court said in the course of the hearing saying that government and its agencies responsible for the safety of pilgrims just cannot not be sitting back and see devotees die.

Providing facilities to the pilgrims has been a contentious issue. In 2008, the centre and Jammu and Kashmir government led by Ghulam Nabi Azad had agreed to transfer 99 acres of land en route to the cave to the shrine board for building facilities for the pilgrims. This was opposed by People’s Democratic Party, which was ally of then government in J&K. They instigated a huge agitation in the valley leading to the scrapping of the land transfer.

This decision was responded to as aggressively by people from Jammu region, who in demand for restoring land to the shrine board, blocked the national highway connecting valley to Jammu region. The blockade was lifted after the government agreed to transfer 40 hectares of land every year to shrine board during the yatra period for building temporary facilities for the pilgrims.

The shrine board under present governor N N Vohra and chief minister Omar Abdullah have consistently adopted an indifferent attitude towards the yatra lest provision for good facilities invite wrath of the hardliners in the valley. The responsibility of its peaceful conduct has been left to the Indian army.

According to Col Jagmohan Brar, the Srinagar based Defence spokesperson, the 10th Battalion of the Garhwal Rifles has been given the responsibility of the route once again this year. ‘After a successful conduct of yatra in 2011, the battalion was geared up for the job with the primary task of forming a security cover for the yatris and a smooth conduct of Amarnath yatra 2012,’ said Brar. The army performs an onerous task as the concerned battalion [10 Garhwal for past two years] gets inducted into the highly inhospitable terrain a month before the yatra begins to set up the camp, dominate routes to secure them of any subversive attacks and set up essential services all along the route. They even hold detailed mock drills and rehearsals of rescue operations, actions on contingency, training in first aid, resuscitation, casualty evacuation and combat medicare training.

The Baltal-Domel route to the cave, also called the northern route, is a 16 km walk with steep climb at a number of places, particularly from Riyalpathri to Brarimarg and from Sangam base to Sangam top with climb starting from 9,000 feet to 13,500 feet. An alternate route exists from Brarimarg to the Holy Cave via Kalimata base skirting Sangam base and Sangam top, thereby reducing the distance by about 2.5 km. Moving along the route one can see the army jawans helping the young and elderly cross narrow cuttings and frisky curves across the glaciated and landslide prone terrain. Pilgrims can also catch glimpse of army personnel patrolling on the lofty heights reassuring them of their safety.

The presence of the civilian support during the yatra is woefully absent all through. Pointing towards lack of facilities Supreme Court in its order commented, ‘less said the better.’ Justice Swatanter Kumar of the Supreme Court rightly said, ‘Due to the lack of space, pilgrims skid and fall thousands of feet below and die. It is a glacier. There is ice below and sky above.’ What the Supreme Court stopped short of saying was that but for the army, the yatra would have stopped long back.

Its said that that Lord Shiva chose the Amarnath cave to narrate the secrets of immortality and creation of universe to his wife Parvati. The cave was chosen due to its remote location as he did not want anybody else to hear the narration. Every year devotees from across the world undertake the journey to this shrine.

The annual yatra commences a week before the holy month of Shravan and ends on the last day – the Raksha Bandhan [Shravan] Poornima with the arrival of Chari Mubarak from Srinagar. This year the yatra commenced on 25 June and would end on 2 August. A record 6,49,684 pilgrims paid obeisance in 2011to Baba Barfani, as Shiva is locally called. With over five lakh devotees already visiting the cave this year and another 10 days to go, this record would be broken.

Sidharth Mishra is president, Centre for Reforms, Development and Justice, and consulting editor, Millennium Post.
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