The Supreme Court has asked the J&K government to take a slew of measures to ensure that Amarnath Yatra becomes safe and hassle-free. Syed Asma explains how the verdict will change the way yatra was conducted.
After arguing the case for five months, the division bench of Supreme Court of India (SC) comprising of Justice Dr B S Chauhan and Justice Swatanter Kumar on Dec 13, 2012 came out with a verdict on the new arrangements for the annual Amarnath Yatra. Taking suo moto cognizance of the number of deaths reported by three Delhi based newspapers during the Amarnath Yatra in 2012, the SC had appointed a Special High Power Committee (SHPC) to visit the site and look into the reasons which led to these deaths. This year, 93 of 6.2 lakh pilgrims died while on the way to the cave, which makes it 0.00015 percent of the total yatris.
The verdict issued by the division bench is largely based on the recommendations of SHPC which comprised of representatives from different union ministries, a few bureaucrats from J&K, director general of Border Security Forces and Border Roads Organisation, etc. The verdict was formulated after hearing “interveners and all other stakeholders at great length” which includes the central government, the state government and the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) as well.
Terming the management and arrangements for yatris ‘pathetic’, ‘ill planned’ and ‘inefficient’, the SC in its verdict said, “It is undoubtedly and indisputably come on record that the rights of yatris to the holy shrine enshrined under Article 21 of the constitution of India are being violated.”
The Article 21 and 19 (1) (d) of Indian constitution says every Indian citizen has a right to move freely throughout the territory of India, free of fear, with the dignity and safety. To ensure enforcement of such right is the primary obligation of the state and the central government, the SC verdict maintains.
As per the SC, the authorities have not taken any effective and appropriate measures for protecting the life of thousands of devotees who visit the holy cave during this limited period ‘despite the print media repeatedly bringing this to the notice of all the concerned’. “Thus, within the constitutional mandate of Article 21, this court would have no option but to pass appropriate direction. There is admittedly lack of basic amenities and healthcare. The walking tracks are not only deficient but also not safe for the pedestrians.”
The SC arrived at the conclusion after taking into consideration the recommendations made by SHPC team who visited the spot and from the news reports and photographs published in the press.
The SC’s verdict referring to a photograph published in one of the Delhi based newspapers on June 28, 2012 reads, “From the 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 very small but it is even unprotected. The photographs also show hardly any amenities are available for the yatris in and around the cave.”
It adds, “One person [in the days of yatra] 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/passage from falling.”
In view of these causalities, the SC ordered that the walking track should be widened and railing and retaining walls should be provided. The verdict insists that the width of the tracks leading to the cave should not be less than 12 feet, particularly the track leading from Panchtarni to the holy cave.
“However, the extent of width of the passage and manner of providing the railing, thick iron cables supported by wooden blocks or cement and stone, will be in the discretion of the Sub-Committee afore-constituted,” the SC’s verdict mentions.
The sub-committee would comprise of J&K’s chief secretary, home secretary and CEO of SASB. The sub-committee has been given liberty to consult or obtain opinion from any expert body and has an authority to bring it to the notice of the court if any official fails to render required help.
For the convenience of the Amarnath yatris, the SC has ordered to provide a separate one-way passage for palkis and horses as one unit and the pedestrians as the other. It is also mentioned in the verdict that pre-fabricated ‘walking path/matting’ should be provided. All other tracks from various other points, like Baltal, Panchtarni and Chandanvadi may be covered either by pre-fabricated rough cement tiles or such other material. This, the SC says, is in view of the most appropriate benefit of the pilgrims.
The court has also ordered that shelters should be constructed on the passage/walking paths at regular intervals. “Temporary/pre-fabricated shelters should be provided near the holy cave where large number of people has to wait for having a glance of the shivlingam. The existing grill should be replaced by 100 per cent transparent fibre to ensure there is no visual obstruction for the pilgrims,” the SC observed.
“In the alternative, the iron grills, as installed can be permitted, but the gaps between the parallel bars, which are perpendicular to the earth, should not be less than 12 inches, as they would help in giving a clear visual darshan of the shivlingam and the shiv parivar,” it maintains.
The court has directed the state to construct STPs at all the places, particularly at Baltal. “Clearance for that purpose shall be granted by all the concerned departments expeditiously and in accordance with law. Availability of pre-fabricated toilets and tents must be ensured to raise the standard of the Amarnath pilgrimage.”
Talking about the number of the yatris visiting the cave the SC has given full authority to the SASB to determine their number. “SASB will continue to determine, from year to year, the maximum number of the pilgrims to be allowed to embark on the tracks, after taking into consideration the weather condition and forecasts, track conditions, infrastructure available in the enroute camps and at the holy cave.”
Besides, lack of medical facilities and limitations of the officers of the forces deployed in the areas were highlighted in the SHPC report. From next year onwards, medical teams would be asked to be present at every 2 km along the track of Amarnath Yatra. Chief secretary of every state has been asked to identify the hospitals and their medical officers who will be issuing free of cost health certificates to yatris. These doctors from different states would be deputed during the period of yatra in J&K to ensure standard health care to the pilgrims.
The SC has also asked the J&K government to give the requisition of doctors and their areas of specialization to different states. The court also directed the state and SASB to provide infrastructure, equipment, medicines and all other ancillary items to the medical teams to ensure adequate treatment to the pilgrims without any loss of time. Largest number of medical teams will be deputed at the glacier and the passage near the holy cave.
Further, the state government has been asked to take care of the lodging and boarding to doctors on ‘temporary duty’ and ensure that they are not put to any inconvenience. The court has made it clear that any officer of any state irrespective of his position in the state hierarchy will personally be held responsible and proceeded against in the event of default and/or violation of court directions/recommendations of SHPC.
The court observed that all these changes should be implemented keeping in view the fragile environment of the place.