The environmental concerns are mostly focused around the twin tracks leading to the Amarnath cave in Kashmir. But few people are aware that the easily accessible and fast receding Thajiwas glacier overlooking Sonamarg plays host to hundreds of tourists daily, during and after the yatra. The government has even permitted commercial sledging, laid a pony track, and a road to the spot, reports R S GULL and SARA WANI.
A Google search for the Thajiwas glacier throws up thousands of results, mostly photographs of picnickers making merry on the dark black, muddy glacier. Many results pertain to the details by various travel agencies about how to trek to the spot. There is almost nothing that offers any academic or scholarly detail of the glacier, as is the case with Siachen (Ladakh) or Kolhai (Pahalgam).
On a routine day of this tourist season, the track to the glacier is lined up with trekkers from the day break, some riding ponies while others huffing and puffing to foot the 5 kms and 9000 feet, steep trek. Scene remains the same throughout the day and crowd starts thinning only by 5 pm. Tourists flocking the spot are mostly from non-snow regions of India who want to experience the snow. While experiencing it, they play with it, skid over it and hire sledges to take rides up and down. “We charge Rs 150 per head for a sledge ride and we do have few interested tourists a day,” Alf Din said. “It is a livelihood for us and we do it routinely as long as the weather permits.”
During the tourist season, horsemen do brisk business “We charge Rs 850 for a horse ride from Sonamarg to the Thajiwas glaciers and return,” said Munir Khan, who has barely rested since May when the tourist season started. “Yatra was peak season and once it was over, we descended down to Sonamarg where we do get a tourist a day and sometimes two per day.” There are nearly 500 horses serving tourists on this trek besides scores of taxis and buses which have set up a sprawling parking lot, not far away from the glacier.
At the snout of the glacier where a roaring stream flows down , there is a camping site adjacent to which are situated a number of makeshift shops vending cigarettes, bottled water, juices, packaged junk of all kinds and ranges, besides hot tea and a few woolen items. Some vendors offer non-slippery rubber shoes and sticks to help people walk over the snow-body on rent. At the camp site, hundreds of mules are parked and one has to wade through the knee deep dung to negotiate a ride.
All this activity has left its tell-tale marks on the glacier. It has turned completely black and dirty. The glacier has a thick coat of dust and grease with heaps of garbage at few places. The trek that leads to the glacier is littered with used plastic bottles and discarded junk packaging which is highly detrimental for an ecologically fragile zone such as this.
Thajiwas is a little cousin of Kolohoi glacier. The two major glaciers are located on either side of the foothills housing the cave shrine of Amarnath. Unlike Thajiwas, Kolohoi is not easily accessible. Of late, both the snow-bodies, which are vital water resource of Kashmir, are receding massively. Kolohoi has reduced from 11 sq QMs to 2.63 sq kms in the last three decades.
Not much literature is available about Thajiwas. “It is no more a glacier. It is only a remnant of a glacier that we are losing,” Kashmir’s distinguished glaciologist, Dr Shakeel Ramshoo, an authority on ecology, said. “It is just a matter of time.” Ramshoo says this glacier that was dominating the entire gorge a few years back but it is receding very fast because thousands of people are being deliberately permitted to making it a playing field. “There is still a possibility of arresting its speedy melting but it can happen only if the authorities act and stop permitting the snow body from being exploited for tourist reasons,” Ramshoo, who just returned from Germany, asserted.
Ironically, while Kashmir is sensitive to its fragile ecology, impact on a glacier like Thajiwas is missing from the overall narrative that seems restricted to the twin tracks leading to the cave shrine. Given the movement of more than a million people – up and down, the perennial exercise is definitely a major issue because there are cores of such glaciers on the twin track, some of them still in a position that they can be protected.
Indian Youth Climate Network thatran a small scale project on waste management at Baltal offered its findings recently. An IYCN activist described part of their first day experience at Baltal like this: