On The Delicate Enviornment-Faith Conflict

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(Polluted Amarnath track during annual yatra.)

Tonnes Of Pilgrimage Trash Threaten Indian Kashmir

By: Izhar Wani

Srinagar, India (AFP) Sep 02, 2006 : Tonnes of trash dumped in Indian Kashmir during an annual religious pilgrimage pose a serious threat to the region’s water supplies and flora, environmental groups warn. The trash is dumped during an annual trek to a shrine in the Amarnath cave, 3,800 meters (12,800 feet) up in the Himalayas, which is considered an abode of the Hindu deity Shiva.

The State Pollution Control Board says 5,500 kilograms (121,000 pounds) of waste were generated by nearly 300,000 pilgrims a day during the June 11 – August 9 pilgrimage this year, making 330,000 kilograms for the 60-day trek.

Similar amounts of trash — which includes plastic bags, bottles and human faeces — have been dumped in previous years by pilgrims, and Greenpeace says the amount now is overwhelming trek organisers. “Heaps of waste have been piling up for years now. It’s causing colossal damage to the environment,” says Shafat Hussain, who heads Greenpeace in Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian Kashmir. “Until a system is put in place for dealing with the garbage, we’re in for a big environmental problem.”

Greenpeace says the decomposing trash leaches into the glacier-fed streams which are the main source of water for thousands of  families. It also destroys the area’s delicate flora. The group says accumulated trash must be removed from the pilgrimage tracks before it begins snowing in November to prevent further contamination.

“When it gets enveloped in snow, it will start degrading and contaminate the glaciers and streams,” says Hussain.

Greenpeace and other groups say pilgrimage organisers fail each year to make proper plans to dispose of the trash. Most pilgrims set out from Nunwun base camp near the southern Kashmir town of Pahalgam in June on a 50-kilometer (31-mile) trek to worship an ice stalagmite that forms most years in the cave. Others opt for a 16-kilometer route from Baltal town.

“Both routes are littered with plastic bottles, polythene and biscuit wrappers. If immediate measures are not taken to dispose of the garbage, an ecological crisis looms,” says Zahoor Ahmed, who heads the non-governmental group Human Objective to Protect Environment, or HOPE.

A shrine board official defended its actions, saying it employs people to collect garbage and bury it on site with all plastic items removed.

“We’re committed to preserving the fragile environment,” says the official, Madan Mantoo.

Ahmed disputes this, saying plastic goods were not being separated.

Environmental groups “would have brought the waste to base camps and from there shifted the waste to dumping grounds,” says Ahmed. Since the end of this year’s trek, environmental groups have tried to interest civic groups in removing the garbage.

“We’ve been involving school children … but cleaning the entire track needs huge resources,” says Hussain, who appealed for government help. “Clearing the area needs a massive effort not only by voluntary organisations like ours but by the government,” says Hussain.

Environmental groups “can’t do it alone. We don’t have enough resources and manpower to do that,” he says.

Trash left at high altitudes poses a problem throughout the Himalayas including on Mount Everest in neighboring Nepal, where mountaineering teams are too tired to remove the waste.

A clean-up campaign was launched by the government and the Nepal Mountaineering Association in 1996, but it ran out of steam, allowing oxygen cylinders, plastic bags and beer cans to pile up, says association president Ongchu Sherpa.

Aside from the pilgrims, the area is filled with security forces during the trek, because it has been the scene of attacks by Islamic militants who have waged a deadly separatist insurgency in Kashmir since 1989.

“The troop deployment is in excess of 20,000 soldiers … Their presence cannot but affect the rise in pollution levels,” says Gautam Navlakha, a leading human rights activist.

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