Unknown Toll of Yatra

Inclement weather, use of concertina razor wire in security arrangements for Amarnath pilgrimage and the heavy rush of pilgrims has claimed hundreds of ponies threatening the livelihood of many labourers who make the annual yatra possible. P A Mushtaq examines the reasons and impact the toll has on the conduct of the Himalayan pilgrimage. 

The annual Hindu pilgrimage to Amarnath shrine has taken a phenomenal and different toll this year. Hundreds of ponies have perished and thousands are battling to be back on their feet after ferrying an unprecedented number of devotees this year over the rough, rocky and icy route to the cave shrine.

According to the state animal husbandry department, this year 143 registered ponies died and 5,800 were injured while taking pilgrims to the shrine.
 
At least 20,000 Muslim labourers and above 7,000 pony owners, deployed by the SASB, join the Hindu pilgrimage every year to make the travel easy and safe along the twin routes leading to the shrine from Baltal and Chandanwari.

Early start of the pilgrimage on June 29 this year pushed ponies over heavy snow -12 feet at places like Magun Top – inclement weather and through concertina razor wire security barriers.

“Inclement weather takes a toll on animals. When the yatra started, the Magun Top was full of snow glaciers and the animals just perished in snow,” said Anantnag Animal Husbandry officer, Dr Basheer Ahmad.

“But a good number of injuries and deaths are avoidable because the razor wires have emerged as the main reason for multiple lacerations. A pony inserts its head through the razor wire for grazing or walks by it gets entangled, with concertina spikes piercing the animal’s skin,” said Dr Basheer.

More than 13,000 ponies were engaged by SASB for the pilgrimage this year. Of the 7,959 ponies registered in south Kashmir, 2,800 have been treated for multiple injuries and diseases. “At least 95 pony deaths were reported till July 25,” said Dr Basheer.The state animal husbandry department has set up six round-the-clock camps, three each enroute the shrine from the twin base camps of Baltal and Pahalgam. All the six camps have treated unprecedented number of injured ponies so far this year.

Animal Husbandry officer Dr Khursheed Zargar confirmed treating more than 3,000 ponies out of the 5,202 registered with the authorities. “Many unregistered ponies treated are not there in the figures. The number might go up,” said Dr Zargar.

The Ganderbal animal husbandry department has recorded 48 deaths in the first four weeks of the yatra. “Most ponies are overworked because of the heavy rush,” said Dr Zargar.

The use of concertina wire with razor edges has been the main reason for animals receiving grievous injuries along Baltal route too. “Many received multiple lacerations due to the concertina wires erected for security reasons,” said Zargar.

The surgeries performed on the animals lacerated by these concertina wires are tedious for doctors and very painful for the animal. “It takes at least three hours to perform a surgery on a pony with lacerations inflicted by the barbed wires. The barbed wire inflicts deep wounds with skin scaled and peeled off over a large portion of the animal’s body,” said a doctor at the Baltal camp.

“Such surgeries are painful and excruciating for animals. Most severe injuries are in their legs. The animals need to be followed up to see how many have got crippled,” the doctor said.

The shrine board insures registered ponies only in case of deaths. Those families making a living on these ponies risk losing livelihood when their animals are crippled due to multiple injuries. Also in case a pony owner is unregistered he cannot claim any compensation.

“This year the rush in the first three weeks was unprecedented. The registered pony owners were not able to cope up with the rush. Many unregistered pony owners chipped in but faced heavy losses when the animals got injured while ferrying pilgrims,” said a pony owner.Director animal husbandry Dr Ghulam Rasool Mir admits there is no insurance in case of injuries. “Only those who lost their animals will be compensated.

All registered ponies are insured,” said Dr Mir. “We will also seek compensation for the owners whose animals were grievously injured during the yatra,” said Dr Mir.

The shrine board has fixed a rate of Rs 2,782 for pony ride from Chandanwari in Pahalgam to the cave shrine and from the Baltal, it is Rs 1,800.
This year, a record number of more than six lakh pilgrims already hit the Amarnath shrine.

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