While the arrangements for the Amarnath Yatra 2019 are exceptionally upgraded from both the axis, the curfew-like restrictions on the movement of commuters and merchandise on the National Highway has the potential to impact the state economy
On Friday, Naginder Singh Jamwal, the camp director of the ongoing Amarnath yatra at Baltal, had an interesting story to tell broadcaster, Talha Jehangir. A pilgrim had come to the director complaining that horseman had over-charged him. This led to an on-post investigation.
The base camp at Baltal has a number of billboards carrying the rate list for all kind of services. “When we checked the rate and the money the pilgrim had paid,” Jamwal told in a radio programme, “We found that the horseman had actually taken Rs 500 less than the approved rate. Once it was proved, there were clapping from every side.”
This is just one of the many incidents that are taking place on either side of the two treks that lead to the Amarnath cave. In one case, a relative of a pilgrim was unable to locate her brother and with the help of Radio Kashmir Srinagar (RKS), he was traced while taking off from Srinagar airport.
Not many people know that one of the newest things that have happened in Amarnath 2019 is that it has a high power radio transmission station broadcasting for 16 hours a day. Set up, literally in an emergency by the RKS engineers led by Niyaz Ahmad under K Murugan’s supervision, in a hut, the transmitter broadcasts at 103.7 MHz is being picked by the entire RKS FM network in addition to AIR-run FM Gold. Perhaps the first-ever joint exercise of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry and the Ministry of Culture, the station broadcasts rare archival Sanskrit Bajjans, Mantras, Vandnas in addition to all the news bulletins in Hindu, Urdu and Kashmiri.
“We broadcast public announcements and advisories and help locate pilgrims,” Jehangir, Kashmir’s famous broadcaster-satirist stand up, who is manning the station said. “It is a great experience and to be honest a great service and I see the pilgrims from diverse backgrounds impressed by the host population and the arrangements.” The broadcaster said his uninterrupted broadcasts during the devastating September 2014 floods are helping him manage the new assignment better, single-handedly.
The station that currently broadcasts at RKS’s Baltal station is being made available by the I&B Ministry through DTH in a few days where it will be known as Amarnath Yatra AIR. “In the last few days, we have aired more than 100 small interviews and everybody is appreciative of the arrangements and the hospitality of the host population,” Jehangir said.
But this is not the only newer thing that has happened in yatra 2019. Officials associated with the exercise said that for the first time, the visitors, not registered as pilgrims, can be instantly registered. “Every day, there is a provision of registering and instantly permitting 100 visitors to trek up to the cave,” a senior officer said.
More than 150 thousand pilgrims have registered themselves for the 46-day long pilgrimage, which takes place from the 36-km Pahalgam track in Jammu and Kashmir’s Anantnag district and 14-km Baltal route in Ganderbal district. The Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) has used the barcodes for the first time in the history of the pilgrimage and the objective is to gather actual statistics. The barcodes are being issued by the banks at the time of registration.
In 2018, officials said, 285006 pilgrims had paid obeisance at the cave against 352771 in 2015; 320490 in 2016 and 260003 in 2017.
The arrangements are flawless and impressive. A simple trek to Baltal or Pahalgam, the twin routes to the Amarnath cave, convey even to a simpleton that the arrangement for the 2019 pilgrimage have been exemplary and unprecedented. By now when more than 65000 pilgrims have had their darshan, there has not been any chaos over the treks on either side. As choppers are flying from Baltal, thousands are taking the arduous trek to the cave from both the axis.
“I have been covering the yatra for 15 years,” Bilal Bahadur, the Kashmir Life photo-journalist, said. “I have never seen such impressive arrangements on the treks or the base camp.” The arrangements at the community kitchens, the lunghars, the medical facilities, availability of hot and cold waters and the bedding in the camps, all have gone to the next level, in comparison to earlier years.
“The security arrangements are massive,” Bahadur said. “There are long lines of the paramilitary forces all along the trek till I could go.” The paramilitary men are not in battle gear but they also carry other life-saving systems. On last Thursday, when a huge batch of pilgrims that was descending to the base camp felt suffocated, as many 25 of them were administrated oxygen by the ITBP personnel.
On way to the cave from Baltal, there is a huge glacier that is at the foothills of a shooting stone belt. The ITBP has shot a small video showing its personnel literally lined up as the shooting stones are falling and they are using the transparent shields to prevent those stones as the yatra was going on.
In order to ensure better communication, Reliance Jio has introduced a special short prepaid plan for the pilgrims to stay connected to their families. For Rs 102, they get 500 MB of daily data with weeklong validity and free local and STD calls in addition to 100 messages per day.
Anil Kumar, a Jammu resident who is permanently living in Srinagar, said the improved facilities at pilgrimage sites are the focus of the new BJP government. “My relatives had gone to a pilgrimage in UP and they were amazed to see the change in the arrangements,” Kumar said. “This was long overdue and this is helping the government to send a message that it cares about them.”
Home Minister Amit Shah had specially flown to have a personal review of the arrangements. He had a detailed meeting with the security-grid and emphasised that the yatra has to be incident-free. This is the key factor why the yatra shall remain the governor Satya Pal Malik’s top priority for the next five weeks.
Unlike past, however, the pilgrimage has led to a sort of crisis in Kashmir. Authorities have literally blocked the Jammu-Srinagar national highway and the civilian traffic is permitted only after 3 pm. There are severe restrictions between Qazigund and Srinagar on the movement. Even the train has been stopped between Qazigund and Banihal.
This has created a massive crisis in Kashmir for the commuters and the businesses. This is almost getting to the same situation when the authorities had banned the civilian traffic on the highway for specific days in the wake of the February car-bomb-explosion near Lethpora in the anticipation to the Lok Sabha elections.
The restricted movement has started hitting everybody. “The unreasonable restrictions will throw the life of every citizen out of gear,” Rakesh Gupta, the president of Jammu Chamber of Commerce and Industry said. “The logistics cost increases manifold; perishable goods get damaged; there are no facilities for drivers and cleaners along the highway with no mobile toilets and the time limit of e-way bills expire.”
The national highway is already under crippling pressures at various places and is frequently collapsing. As the pilgrimage remains a priority, the local civilian and business traffic is facing a crisis.
Almost every political party has decried the ban. The newly set up Peoples United Front, an alliance between Shah Faesal and Engineer Rashid, staged a sit-in against the 5-hour ban.
“Who knows better than the security agencies that Kashmiris make the yatra a success,” Rasheed said. “But, by imposing such bans, the idea is to defame Kashmir and make their life miserable.” He sees it a communalisation aimed at political gains.
Ghulam Nabi, a government employee, was travelling from Jammu when at around 11 am he was stopped from moving ahead. In a commercial light vehicle, there were women and children in the vehicle that was stopped along with a few hundred vehicles near Toll Plaza in Udhampur. “It was scorching heat and the temperature was more than 42 degree and we were under the open sky with no access to water,” Nabi said. “As the kids and women started literally collapsing, we were permitted to move at 2:15 pm, barely 45 minutes before the ban officially ends.”
The curbs have hit the local as well as domestic tourists. “It is very difficult to even reach Pahalgam,” said a retired professor, whose son is a middle-rank police officer. “My son had arranged a party for the guests but despite being a policeman, he cancelled the event.”
“Tourism sector has been the worst hit,” Farooq Amin, the Secretary-General of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry said. “There are reports about the tourists remaining stranded at various places on the highway for longer times that cancelled their schedules.” There are no problems for the tourists landing in Srinagar other than reaching Sonamarg and Pahalgam is difficult.
Traders insist that enforcing a sort of curfew on the national highway for the movement of the hugely-guarded convoys of the pilgrims will hit the state economy hard and divide the people.