A Road To The Cave?

As the Supreme Court is seeking improved and dignified basic facilities for the summer Hindu pilgrimage to Amarnath without compromising the fragile near-glaciated ecology, Kashmir is praying that the process should not end-up reopening the 2008 wounds at a time when J&K is readying for a new assembly election, a KASHMIR LIFE report

Way to Amarnath-Photo:Bilal Bahadur
Way to Amarnath-Photo:Bilal Bahadur

As newsrooms in Srinagar were battling against time to finish early and join families for the last Iftaar of 2012 Ramzan, a phone call from the state information department upset everything. At a very short notice, it was given out that Finance Minister Abdul Rahim Rather and Industry Minister Surjit Singh Slathia would address a press conference. By the time reporters reached Banquet Hall, the NC news conference was turned into a coalition exercise as Congress Health Minister Sham Lal had replaced Slathia.

Understanding the paucity of time Rather started directly. “There are rumors that the government is considering construction of a road to the cave shrine of Amarnath. There is no such proposal,” Rather said. “The fact is that the apex court has taken cognizance of the deaths during the pilgrimage and has not made any direction towards construction of the road.” With Congress minister, Sham Lal, trying to be as economic with the issue as possible, Rather even denied reports of any cable car being laid between the cave and the base camp. For ecological reasons, the minister said the government would even like the numbers of the pilgrims being restricted.

On July 13, a division bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices B S Chauhan and Swatanter Kumar had taken suo moto cognizance of the number of devotee deaths that took place during the yatra in 2012. The judicial notice based on the newspaper reportage of deaths invoked the pilgrims’ constitutional rights granted by Article 21 and 19 (1) d under which they can move freely throughout the territory of India, free of fear, with dignity and safety. The motion quoted extensively from various newspapers to explain the lack of basic facilities. Referring to a published photograph, the motion observed that the path leading to the cave is not only very small but is even unprotected.

“The photographs also show that hardly any amenities are available for the yatris in and around the holy cave, though thousands of people who throng the holy cave have to wait for hours and days for having the darshan,” the motion reads. On basis of the newspaper reports, the petition observed the conditions prevailing at the base camp and the route to the cave are “inhuman, unsafe and undesirable”

The division bench observed that the court should consider seven issues related to the yatra. These included medical facilities, taking care of environmental concerns, requirement of essential amenities, collection and disposal of domestic and human waste, equipment’s available for treating conditions like dyspnoea, cardiac arrest and other heart related problems, cause of high casualty rate and finally measures and means available with authorities for handling a huge crowd. “All these aspects need to be taken care of by the concerned authorities certainly with greater emphasis and they cannot escape their obligation to provide minimum essential facilities including road as an approach to the holy cave,” the court observed in the main petition on the basis of which notices were issued to MHA, Environment Ministry, J&K government and SASB. “They are also expected to make appropriate arrangements for darhan at the holy cave so as to avoid health hazards and injuries, provide proper paths and one-way system passages to the pilgrims.”

On the first hearing of the petition on July 20, the bench observed that it lacks expertise to suggest measures on the gamut of issues confronting the yatra. A Special High Power Committee (SHPC) was constituted to examine various facets and make suggestions on basis of which court would issue appropriate order.

Without limiting the “scope of enquiry and consequential suggestions”, the court directed the SHPC to suggest measures for “protecting the interest of yatris, ensuring proper management, due regard to environmental protection and health care”. Headed by SASB chairman, Governor, N N Vohra, the SHPC will have union secretaries for environment and forests, MHA, Health and Family Welfare, state chief secretary and state secretaries for home and PWD, DG of BRO, CRPF, BSF, JKP and member secretary Central Pollution Control Board as members.

Yatris Riding uphill-Photo:Bilal Bahadur
Yatris Riding uphill-Photo:Bilal Bahadur

“We would expect the HPC to visit and examine the different routes leading to the holy cave, particularly the glacier immediately prior to the holy cave,” the order said. Offering a mechanism for the committee to work, the division bench ordered that after the visit, the SHPC should discuss and deliberate on suggestions within and then frame the final report for the court. Areas emphasized for the HPC include – “construction of proper passages, wide enough and with due support on both sides, for the traffic of pedestrian yatris, on horses and by palkis from Panchtarni to the holy cave”, providing  one-way passage with separate tracks, one for pedestrians and other for horse, carriage and palkis” near the shrine, health check-up facilities, providing “proper public amenities and facilities on way and at the lower end of the glacier near the holy cave”. It also identified deployment of more human resource, more medical camps and limiting the number of pilgrims as other areas of inspection with an emphasis that manner and methods to be suggested by the SHPC should have least damage or interference with the environment of the entire zone.

On July 23, the bench asked SHPC to examine the possibility of installing “a transparent device made of glass, fiber or any other material, which is scientifically permissible” at the cave replacing iron grills. “The iron grills serve no required purpose. Firstly, it obstructs the view of the yatris during darshan, and secondly, they are not after and even pass the human heat which results in early melting of the shivalingham.”

The petition was called for hearing on August 13. SHPC – that had already visited J&K and discussed the concerns at different levels, sought time for filing the report. “We make it clear that this court will not grant any further time,” the bench observed. “The work under the recommendation of the committee must commence before the current year’s snowfall starts in and around the holy cave.” The next date of hearing is September 10. By then all the earlier decisions regarding the yatra will be appended with the main petition.

As the deaths over the tracks started creeping to the front pages, SASB jumped into the explanation mode. On July 24, a full SASB meeting expressed concern over 90 deaths (by July 23 evening) of which 78 had taken place on the twin yatra routes – 45 on Pahalgam-Sheshnag route and 33 on Baltal route. There were 22 others who died in accidents. Overall 84 had medical reasons and six died in accidents.

Responding to a call attention motion in Rajya Sabha on August 14, Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said 621145 pilgrims undertook the yatra in 2012 which saw 93 casualties. Compared to 2011, he said, when 635611 pilgrims visited the cave shrine there were 106 casualties. There were 45 deaths in 2009 from 392653 pilgrims and 77 deaths in 2010 when 451710 pilgrims participated.

Shinde said since the terrain to the cave shrine is very difficult, the Centre will ask the J&K government to look into widening of the path and strengthening of medical certification system for pilgrims. MHA is planning an authority for grant of medical certificates to pilgrims, particularly with reference to cardiology. He said the government will consider laying a ropeway that governor N N Vohra, who is heading the SASB, has suggested.

The response to Shinde’s remarks was a fierce attack by BJP stalwart, Arun Jaitley. “It seems that all facilities are there with utmost perfection. But ground realities are not so.” Jaitely said. “You made a board (SASB) but you did not facilitate it by providing land for creating facilities.”

This entire reportage had triggered its own response in the valley. Kashmir’s peacenik cleric, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, was the first to react. Speaking from the pulpits of the historic Jamia Masjid to more than 100 thousand faithful on Jumat-ul-Vida, Ramzan’s last Friday, Mirwaiz suggested the apex court should skip getting involved in the Amarnath issue. “It is unfortunate that when the government senses public resentment on certain issues, it uses courts to get them through,” Mirwaiz told worshippers.

“I appeal the Supreme Court of India to keep the ecological balance of the area in mind while taking any decision.” Kashmir, the peacenik cleric said, was never averse to providing better facilities to the Hindu pilgrims. “Kashmiris not only provide them all facilitates but also display their traditional hospitality,” Mirwaiz said. “But now some people want the ‘temporary’ track leading to the shrine cave to be developed as a full-fledged macadamized road and have approached Supreme Court. They are also seeking to build other infrastructure in the area. The macadamization of the route up to the cave would also increase pollution in the area, resulting in the melting of glaciers. Such a situation would trigger an ecological disaster in this environmentally sensitive region.”

Members of shri Amarnath Yatra Board in a meeting.
Members of shri Amarnath Yatra Board in a meeting.

A day after his Friday speech, civil society came out openly against the road idea. It expressed “serious concern over the apex court directions asking J&K government for setting up road to the cave shrine before the onset of winter. “While we fully share governmental concern to ensure good health and well-being of the intending pilgrims, we believe that the yatra must be conducted in accordance with the National Environment Policy, the State Forest Policy and also the Nitish Sengupta Committee recommendations,” the civil society group said in a statement that splashed Sunday’ newspapers. It said vast population of the valley depends on these mountains for drinking water which gets polluted with increased human activity.

The twin reactions made Omar to send his two ministers on the eve of Eid to media to deny the road idea. “Our chief secretary and other officials are in the SHPC. We are aware of things,” Rather said. “There are no worries.” But the government could not hide its worries. It did not prevent any separatist including JKLF leader, Yasin Malik, and Mirwaiz Umer Farooq to move out. Syed Ali Geelani was actually arrested and moved to a police station. There was a bout of trouble after young angry worshippers intercepted a police Rakshak near Eidgah and set it afire. Three cops who were moving to Soura from Qamarwari had providential escape.

In 2008, when the last agitation over Amarnath broke out, it marked the beginning of Kashmir’s transition from bloody violence to street protests that eventually led to the fall of a government and a situation in which regions were polarized and an economic blockade was in place. For the first time, the state police felt the requirement of anti-riot gear and finally managed a few planeloads from north-east. Omar Abdullah had two striking instances – one day (August 16, 2008) he and his father landed at Srinagar airport but could not move out and reach home till it was evening. Prior to that, Dr Farooq and Ms Mehbooba Mufti (August 1) took many hours to reach home from Srinagar airport when they had gone to Jammu to attend an all party meeting at Raj Bhawan.

Land row was a watershed event in J&K’s contemporary history. Involving “clandestine” transfer of 800 kanals forest land to Shri Amarnathji Shrine Broad (SASB), the agitation led to more than 60 killings in Kashmir including that of Sheikh Abdul Aziz as the state polity was divided on communal lines. Even trade was seriously impacted as the right-wing parties in Jammu enforced an economic blockade on the rest of the state. After more than two months, the government entered into an agreement with the Shri Amarnathji Yatra Sangharsh Samiti (SAYSS) that marked the end of the crisis. Soon after curfew was imposed in Kashmir to prevent a reaction because it was unrepresented in the negotiations and most of the separatists and unionist rejected the way-out, and in Jammu to prevent a celebration!

As the deaths over the twin tracks leading to the cave paved way for the apex court to monitor improvement of the basic facilities, the trial would eventually reopen the entire case afresh. This is the not the first instance of judicial intervention. Earlier as well, the courts have passed orders on basis of various PILs. Set up in 2001, SASB is run by the governor who heads its eight-member board and enjoys huge powers under law. Apart from managing proper worshipping, offering adequate facilities to the pilgrims, accepting donations, it is empowered by law to construct buildings, sanitary work and improve means of communications.

The Raj Bhawan has become instantly overactive after Lt Gen (retd) S K Sinha took over as its new boss during Mufti Sayeed’s government.  Sinha’s blueprint envisaged creating an Amarnath Development Authority (ADA) by trimming the existing Pahalgam Development Authority (PDA) and Sonamarg Development Authority (SDA) on either side of the cave shrine by offering it a territory of 3642 Kanals (182.10 hectors) between Baltal on one side and Chandwari on other side. The new development authority was supposed to be totally managed by SASB for halting haphazard development in the fragile ecological zone. As the state government rejected the idea, it led to a PIL in which Mr Justice Permod Kohli of the High Court in April 2005 directed the state to “respect the decisions of the Board”; transfer and permit the use of forest land, restrained it from interfering in decisions like duration of yatra, number of pilgrims or their registration, and permitted SASB to construct pre-fab sheds and go for air-conditioning of ice-lingham besides providing helicopter service. The state’s only responsibility in the entire exercise was reduced to ensure security. But the non-transfer of land could not permit SASB to go ahead.

The order passed by Justice Kohli offers some more details of what SASB wanted to do over the peaks.  Apart from extending the yatra to two months, the SASB electrification of the tracks by setting up a small power project at Baltal, creating accommodation for 2500 pilgrims at the cave for overnight stay, besides 600 toilets. It planned a road between Baltal and Sangam, and, in future, installation of cable car project besides LoC type fencing around the camp site.

Photo:Bilal Bahadur
Photo:Bilal Bahadur

Finally when 180 kanals of land were transferred clandestinely, it triggered initially a scandal and later a crisis. It was Ghulam Nabi Azad who paid the price for it – he annulled the transfer and lost his government. As the apex court revisits the entire record, it is the timing that is triggering shivers. J&K is supposed to go for polls in 2014 and any polarization can upset many applecart’s, both in Srinagar and Jammu. Though the mood on Srinagar streets is not offensive, a buildup can change it. The right wingers in Jammu and elsewhere have already started demanding a proper road to the cave shrine. BJP that was the sole gainer in Jammu in 2008 assembly elections, squandered the mandate and is apparently lost but any shrine related development can help it return to the centre, observers believe.

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