Reviving memories of the 1996 tragedy, the flash flood – the third since 2015, near the cave shrine of Amarnath killed 15 pilgrims and injured many more. Authorities and Kashmir’s political class, however, are not on the same page as far as management of the yearly pilgrimage goes
Hours before the Asr prayers on Friday, July 8, the Kashmir Life newsroom got a one-liner from Aamir Ali, the engineer who has been overseeing the disaster management in Kashmir for the last many years. It suggested that some tents pitched near the cave shrine of Amarnath were damaged in a flood. Instead of picking up the phone, he sought texts. “I am on Hajj, right now in the Arafaat,” Aamir texted. Asked how he manages to stay in touch with the happenings above the snow line in Kashmir, when he personally is on Jabal ar-Raḥmah, the mountain of mercy, for Muslims. While sharing the details he had about the tragedy, he put a curt response to the query: “Human lives matter. Can’t shirk from my responsibility”.
The alleged cloudburst that triggered the muddy, swift and thick flash flood picked a challenging time. Kashmir was in Eid mood and the key priority was to make basic arrangements for the festival. The tragedy added gloom to an already tense environment. People, who had managed the 1996 tragedy, when a summer snowfall led to more than 246 killings over the twin tracks, started trembling with fear as the area is hugely fragile, unpredictable and vulnerable to natural disasters.
Survivors told horrific experiences. Sithran (Budgam) resident, Riyaz Ahmad, a horse-man (groom) told reporters that pilgrims were resting in tents, including some lunghars (community kitchens), when the water abruptly gushed down the mountain. Those included the Gujarat woman, he had taken on his horse. “I was waiting outside,” he has said. “It was then that the water gushed in and swept away the langar and many tents. I was pushed down, but I managed to get up and leap out of the water, but most of the pilgrims could not.”
Deepak Chouhan from UP said the situation was horrifying. “Many pandals were washed away, stones also came rolling down,” he said. “We were evacuated by the army after the flow of water stopped.”
“I still shiver when I think about it,” Shiv Roshni, 64, a Delhi resident, said, insisting that when he failed to think of anything in the deafening noise of water, he closed his eyes and left it to fate. “There was no hope that I would survive. It was during the night that some policemen came and rescued us.”
Sumit, another pilgrim from Maharashtra, said there were eight deaths in 10 minutes. “We all had a harrowing experience as we witnessed people and bags being swept away by strong waves,” Sumit was quoted saying. “When the cloudburst took place, we could not believe it. After a while, we only saw water everywhere.”
“We didn’t know what it was,” Mrinal Dutt, 58, a Kolkata pilgrim told reporters at the Baltal medical facility. “We heard a roar and cries. Suddenly we saw water rushing towards us.” It was after a lot of efforts at the Panjtarni medical facility that he was stabilised and later flown downhill.
“There was a deafening noise as the water rushed down. I felt helpless. I closed my eyes and left it to fate,” says Shiv Roshni, a 64-year-old Amarnath pilgrim from Delhi.
“Everything was buried under a mountain of mud and rocks. I have never seen such an incident in my life,” a Hindu ascetic from eastern West Bengal, Ravi Dutt, 69, said, insisting the water gushed down from a mountain “sweeping away men, women and our belongings too”.
However, what helped manage the crisis faster and better was the swift response from the security grid. The twin tracks have never seen such a massive deployment of the security forces – army, police and all the paramilitary forces and disaster response personnel that were seen in the 2022 summer. “On an average, 10 to 15 security forces personnel are deployed for the security of each pilgrim,” NDTV reported.
Almost everybody including the host population professionals jumped in to the rescue and relief quickly. In fact, people who survived the flood survived eventually and did not die of cold or the absence of a medical facility. Though the helicopters could only move into the area, almost 17 hours after, the personnel deployed already on the ground had done the basic work. The deployments had already been there even before June 30, when the yatra formally began.
There were some brave hearts of the pilgrims also who jumped in to the rescue and relief. These included Bikaner (Rajasthan) cop, Sushil Khatri, 61, who had recently retired. He helped a few fellow pilgrims to escape the crisis but lost his own life.
Talking to the media, two days later, on July 11, Air Commodore Pankaj Mittal said the early induction of the IAF saved lives. The operation was small but the terrain and weather conditions were challenging. IAF inducted four MI-17 V5 and four cheetahs, which augmented from the unit at Leh, two fixed-wing assets bringing in manpower and assets from other parts of the country. The air force was able to carry out 112 missions during which it carried out 123 evacuations and flew 29 tonnes of material to the lower cave and Panchtarni areas.
Soon, the IAF flew sniffer dogs, handheld thermal imagers (Xaver 4000) and later even an earth remover was pulled up the snowline. The track restoration, for the first time in history, saw huge machinery including excavators and cutters. Most of the pilgrims rescued by the ground deployments were flown down by the IAF where adequate medical facilities were already in place.
Hunting for Reasons
Initially, the crisis was attributed to the cloudburst but Sonam Lotus Kashmir’s famous weatherman disagreed. He sees it as a “highly localised rain event” that triggered the flash flood. The IMD believes that 31 mm of rainfall for two hours cannot be a cloudburst, which normally requires more than 100 mm of rainfall in an hour. It is interesting to mention here all these mountains lack any facility that can help weathermen to offer some predictions. These instruments cannot be deployed in the area because it is hugely unpredictable. Blizzards, mudslides, heavy snowfall and massive wind storms are normal in the region.
Regardless of the factors behind the crisis, the huge waters almost devastated the track. Apart from damaging part of the 13-km foot track, the massive waters brought so much soil and stones that at some places it was almost 5 feet thick overlap.
Barring two cases in which the people were pulled out from the debris, there were not many other cases despite the use of sniffer dogs and thermal imagers. As the sun shone over the hills again, the officials said that this will harden the rubble and prevent any detection of a body. Though the authorities, this year, had given RFID – radio frequency identification, a form of wireless communication that uniquely identifies an object – to every pilgrim for security reasons, these small digital systems stop working if immersed in water or buried under mud.
LG Manoj Sinha was in the battle gear from the very moment the tragedy struck. He initially visited the sites within Srinagar and Ganderbal and later drove to the Pahalgam side where he spent a night with pilgrims at Nunwan. This was a huge morale booster for the pilgrims and the yatra managers. He moved up the hills with all the top officers as Kashmir remained busy with Eid celebrations.
This all, however, did not spare Sinha from being criticised by Kashmir’s political class. Dr Farooq Abdullah, Kashmir’s five-time Chief Minister, in fact, demanded a probe into the crisis. Abdullah said that the area where the cloudburst hit is very ‘dangerous’ and tents and langars should not have been pitched there. “It is for the first time (tents and langars were set up there). They used to be at Panjtarni. The government should probe it so that such things do not occur in the future,” Abdullah added.
In fact, in the media, it was also reported that a similar cloudburst had hit the same area in 2021. The saving was that there was no yatra in 2020 and 2021. There is also no reference to tents even being erected at this place, ever.
Mehbooba Mufti also indicated if the tragedy was a man-manufacture. She said that the government has maintained silence and is not offering any details barring the deaths in which the bodies were recovered. What about the missing people, she asked, adding that the rush to the pilgrimage site is too huge in utter disregard for the fragile ecology it entails and the earlier recommendations made by the experts.
Finally, six days after the tragedy, Sinha decided to tell his side of the story. Announcing that the yatra resumed after the operation was called off, Sinha said only 15 pilgrims were killed in the tragedy and nobody is missing. The media had reported that while 17 bodies have been recovered, more than 40 pilgrims are missing. “Fifty-five persons were injured and all, except two, have been discharged and have gone home,” Sinha told reporters at Srinagar Raj Bhavan. Families of the deceased will get Rs 10 lakh compensation.
Asked about the allegations that his administration avoided adequate measures in the wake of a flash flood in 2021, Sinha said on basis of the flow pattern of flashfloods in 2015 and 2021, the irrigation and flood control department erected a wall there. This wall, he said, saved a lot of lives. Now, the Surveyor General of India will create a digital contour mapping around the cave.
“Two years before, 7,500 people were permitted through both sides,” Sinha said when asked about the huge rush being permitted to dangerous terrain. “Last year, the shrine board improved the facilities and with the result, it was decided to allow 10,000 yatris from both the axis.”
With 10 thousand pilgrims a day, the 43-day yatra would see not more than 450 thousand pilgrims visit the cave shrine but the government has been saying in Delhi and Srinagar that a record number – as huge as eight lakhs, will be permitted. So far, more than 160 thousand have visited the shrine.