New Delhi July 18: Troubled by the ever-increasing deaths of Amarnath pilgrims, the Supreme Court through a suo motu notice has asked the authorities to explain the reasons for ‘the lack of proper medical and other facilities to the pilgrims.’
Eighty-two yatris losing their lives in 22 days so far (last year, 67 people died during the 45-day yatra) is, indeed, a matter of great concern.
During the deliberations of the Amarnath Shrine Board-appointed subcommittee headed by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar to finalise the duration and schedule of the 2012 yatra, the Indian Army’s GOC 15 Corps is reported to have said that the ‘pilgrims, most of whom hail from the plains, proceed to the holy shrine without any acclimatisation whatsoever, which proves fatal.’ He further disclosed that several army personnel deployed for the security of the yatra have also been losing their lives, that too when the army ‘prescribes four days of rest/acclimatisation at 9,000 feet and six days of rest at 12,000 feet.’
The 42 km traditional Pahalgam route to the shrine takes two to three days. On the 12 km Baltal trek, pilgrims are always keen to cover the most hazardous journey through glaciers in a single day. Till July 16, more than 5 lakh pilgrims had visited the shrine; only 3.5 lakh were registered yatris. The state health authorities maintain that many pilgrims ‘who died of cardiopulmonary arrest were unregistered. Besides, accidental deaths like drowning were also reported.’ At 13,500 feet, even the best medical care is not enough. Further, the state health authorities are afflicted with perennial inefficiency. Is it possible to provide foolproof medical care at an altitude of nearly 14,000 feet to tens of thousands of pilgrims? The Supreme Court has asked a pertinent question, ‘Why seven times the requisite number of people coming to visit the cave per day is being permitted?’ What the court has further asked is immensely disturbing: ‘And if so, whether there is requisite infrastructure at the site for handling such huge crowd?’
What is the real issue here, creating ‘requisite infrastructure’ or managing the yatra in an efficient manner? While minimising the loss of life is important, the real endeavour should be to protect the fast-depleting glaciers, which are Kashmir’s lifelines. The yatra has exponentially increased in scale over the years. Former DGP Kuldeep Khoda, who in 1981 was the superintendent of police of Anantnag district, under which the shrine falls, is on record telling the subcommittee: ‘Yatris used to pay obeisance at the holy shrine on the day of Raksha Bandhan, and the chhadi (the holy mace) used to proceed to the holy cave 10 days earlier.’ He clearly indicates that the yatrain the 1980s was not even a fortnightly affair. Since 2000, the ‘pilgrimage has increased by nearly seven times.’ If it continues to grow at the same pace, whatever infrastructure is created will be inadequate, while certainly jeopardising the environment.
The Greater Pahalgam valley’s carrying capacity (the maximum number of people an environment can sustain) is 4,300 a day. More than 30,000 visitors per day may mean an ecological disaster in the making. On the yatra route, tents are pitched on the glacier, there are massive generators emitting smoke, and thousands of gas cylinders are at work to cater to the huge rush. Experts have found hardened bacteria in the Lidder, the main tributary of the Jehlum. More alarmingly, the Kolahoi glacier that feeds the Lidder ‘has abnormally shrunk — from 13 sq km to 11.5 sq km in the past 40 years and is receding at a rate of nearly 10 feet a year. How long can nature tolerate such an indiscriminate destruction of the environment? Instead of being bothered by the poor infrastructure, the apex court should first and foremost commission an ecological impact study on the yatra. Faith is an individual matter, ecology is a collective concern. The time has come to genuinely explore ways and means to regulate the yatra in a manner that is fulfilling for the devotee without inflicting irreparable loss to nature. The Supreme Court has all along maintained its neutrality; in this case too, it’s expected that, emotions notwithstanding, the court will maintain it.