Amarnath Yatra: The Supreme Court Verdict

The apex court took a suo moto cognizance of a number of deaths during yatra 2012. It appointed a committee that visited the spot and interacted with the state government and the Shrin Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB). On basis of the recommendations, the Special High Power Committee made, and the response from the J&K government, the division bench of the Supreme Court comprising Mr Justice Dr B S Chauhan and Mr Justice Swatanter Kumar issued a final order on December 13, 2012. Given the public interest involved with the issue, Kashmir Life posts the entire order for its readers.

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA
CRIMINAL ORIGINAL JURISDICTION

SUO MOTU WRIT PETITION (CIVIL) NO. 284 OF 2012

COURT ON ITS OWN MOTION                      …petitioner
Versus
UNION OF INDIA & ORS.                        ….Respondents
J  U D G M E N T

Swatanter Kumar, J.

1.    Taking notice of the persistent press reports dealing  with  the  poor arrangements and number of deaths that occurred  during  the  yatra  in  the year 2012 to the holy cave of Amarnathji, the Court  took  suo  motu  action and issued notice to the Union of India, State of Jammu and Kashmir and  the Chairman/President of the Amarnathji Shrine Board vide its order dated  13th July, 2012.  It will be appropriate to reproduce  the  said  order  at  this stage itself:-

“Today’s ‘The Times of India’ and ‘Hindustan Times’  reports  67 deaths of pilgrims mostly because of the cardiac arrests as well for other reasons.  As per these reports, this has  happened  in 17 days.  Last year 105 persons died during the 45 days’ yatra. Thus, this year it appears to be on the rise.  In our considered view, the pilgrims have a constitutional right under Articles 21 and 19(1)(d) to move freely throughout the territory of India,  free of fear, with dignity and safety and to ensure  enforcement of such right is the primary obligation of  the  State  and  the Central Governments.

Where it is a matter of common knowledge that the yatra  to the ‘Holy Cave of Amarnath’ is  an  occasion  of  privilege  and pride for a devotee, there it is also a matter of great  concern for the Government of India, the  Government  of  the  State  of Jammu & Kashmir and the Amarnath  Shrine  Board.   Some  of  the events that have been widely reported in the  newspapers  compel us  to  take  a  judicial  notice  of  the  lack  of   necessary facilities, essential amenities and the risk to the lives of the yatris, en route and around the “Holy Cave of Amarnath”.

On 3rdJuly, 2012, it was reported in the Hindustan  Times, Delhi Edition, that two more pilgrims died of cardiac arrest  on Sunday, taking the toll to 22.  Both the pilgrims were stated to be in their mid-thirties.  One pilgrim was on  her  way  to  the holy shrine while the other was returning to Pahalgam Base  Camp (Names : Ms. Anita Chourasia and Sadhu Ram).  The same daily  on 2nd of July, 2012 had reported that there were  deaths  of  five more devotees as a result of cardiac arrest at the Pahalgam  and Baltal Base Camps.  These  were  the  deaths  reported  to  have occurred between 25thJune, 2012 to 2ndJuly,  2012  on  the  twin tracks of Baltal in Ganderbal and Pahalgam  in  Amarnath.   This daily also reported that nearly 1.20 lakh pilgrims  had  so  far paid obeisance to  the  shivalingam  at  the  holy  cave.   This newspaper also showed the path and  the  weather  conditions  to which the  yatris  to  the   Holy  Cave  were  exposed  and  the
amenities that were available at the glacier.

The Times of India, New Delhi Edition  on  29thJune,  2012 had reported that there was an unidentified body of 55-year  old pilgrim which was recovered along the  Pehalgam  cave  route  in Anantnag district.

Similarly, on 28th June, 2012, the Hindustan Times,  while referring that the Management had directed increase of  security at the  yatri  base  camps  to  maintain  proper  schedule,  had reported that the death toll within the first three days of  the commencement of the yatra was six.   The  same  newspaper  dated 27thJune, 2012 had shown a photograph of the passage  that  more than 18000 pilgrims had visited the holy cave, which is  at  the height of 3,880 metres, in three days.  It  showed  one  of  the passages leading to the holy cave.  From this picture itself, it is clear and even otherwise it is a matter of  common  knowledge that the path leading to the holy 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.  It  has also been published in other papers that in the initial days  of the yatra, one person had died because  of  the  fall  from  the height as there was no support or protection on the path leading to the holy cave.  The path somewhere is stated to be even  less than six feet and does not have any grill  or  protection  (like pagdandi), which could  prevent  the  people  walking  on  these constricted paths/passages from falling.  All the palkis, horses
and even the yatris walking on foot, travel on the same path  at the same time, thus causing complete jams on the already tapered paths leading to the holy cave.

With the passage of time, the things have hardly improved. We may refer to what was the situation was in the year 2011, as per the newspaper reports of the relevant/concerned year.

The Indian Express while reporting the commencement of the yatra in its newspaper  dated  29th  June,  2011  reported  that nearly 2.5 lakh  pilgrims  had  registered  themselves  for  the annual pilgrimage  with  the  Amarnath  Shrine  Board  till  the aforesaid date and 2000 pilgrims had already left the  State  of Jammu for  the  yatra.  It  also  reported  a  very  unfortunate incident where a person named Rajinder  Singh,  aged  55  years resident of Jaipur had died due to cardiac arrest at Baltal base camp in Ganderbal district of Kashmir.

Again on 1st July, 2011, the same paper  reported  that  a group of men and women, young, elderly and children  with  their backpacks walked up the winding steep gradient of  the  road  to the cave shrine.  In this  report  reference  was  made  to  the statement of the public that there were no vehicles and  it  was very difficult for the pilgrims to travel  and  walk  such  long distances.  From Baltal route, 13,000 pilgrims left  while  9000 pilgrims left from Chandanwari for darshan to the holy cave.

With the increase in the number of pilgrims  coupled  with the poor management, it appears that there was a sharp  increase in the casualty rate.  In  the  Indian  Express  dated  6thJuly, 2011, it was reported that 18 yatris had died within a  week  of the commencement of the journey.  This included  elderly  people as well as young victims.  One Mr. Vikram Rathore, who died, was only  aged  25  years.   It  appeared  from  this  report   that constraints on the  availability  of  medical  aid  and  medical examination is writ large.

The same newspaper on 8thJuly, 2011  reported  that  three more pilgrims died during the yatra  raising  the  toll  to  27.
Even  a  constable  namely  Inderjeet  Singh  posted   with   28 Battalion, Central Reserve  Police  Force  (for  short  ‘CRPF’), Srinagar, died of heart attack while returning  from  the  cave.
Another person aged about 54 years  hailing  from  Gujarat  also died of cardiac arrest at Sangam top much ahead of  the  shrine. Still another detailed article appeared in the  Times  of  India dated  18th  July,  2011  detailing  the  lack  of   facilities, referring to the rush of the pilgrims at the base points as well as at the holy cave.  A pilgrim from Guwahati stated:  “Half-an-hour after starting out for the shrine  from  Panchtarni,  which is a place 6 km from the holy cave, we were trapped in a jam for close to two hours.  There was not an inch of space on the path.
There was pushing and shoving as yatris got restless. A  sudden movement or a horse or commotion in a section of the crowd could have caused a big stampede”.  Referring to the statement  of  an officer, the report stated that the pilgrims had to be regulated from the base camps and there was very little that  the  members of the Forces could do at the narrow pathways or the  holy  cave to control the situation.  Nearly 22,000  pilgrims  visited  the shrine daily while the limit, as per the administration  itself, was reported to be 3,400 per day only.   It is again a matter of great regret that obviously because of lack of  proper  aid  and amenities, the death toll had gone upto 85 on 21st  July,  2011, as was reported in “The Hindu” of the even date.

All these reports clearly showed disregard  to  the  human life.  Lack of facilities at the shrine and on the paths leading
to the shrine is evident from all the aforestated  articles  and the photographs published therein.  This  Court  has  repeatedly held that in terms of Article 21 of the Constitution of India, a person has a right to live with dignity and not be subjected  to inhuman treatment,  particularly  in  such  places  where  large number of people are bound to —

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