What’s killing the Amarnath yatris?

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As the death toll tops 80, questions are being raised over the conduct and management of the annual pilgrimage. Riyaz Wani reports

Icy high The rush of pilgrims has also sparked worries about the ecology
Icy high The rush of pilgrims has also sparked worries about the ecology

THE ARDUOUS path to the holy cave in Amarnath is once again littered with dead bodies. At least 86 pilgrims have died so far, and with the yatra scheduled to end on 2 August, the toll is set to surpass last year’s figure (107).

Taking note of the rising death toll, the Supreme Court has issued notices to the Centre and the Jammu & Kashmir governments to seek details. The apex court has also raised environmental concerns and questioned the government’s wisdom in sending seven times the number of pilgrims, considering the fragile ecology.

“What is the cause for such a high casualty rate?” the court asked, taking note of the inadequate facilities that hinder the pilgrims’ progress. “It is expected of the authorities to devote more attention and provide appropriate amenities to protect the lives of individuals, the environment as well as to make the yatra successful, preferably without any human casualty.”

Stung by the criticism, a team led by state Health Minister Sham Lal Sharma visited the camps for yatris on 16 July to take stock of the medical facilities.

Doctors posted along the yatra route complained to Sharma that many yatris don’t pack adequate clothing and start the climb without any acclimatisation, attempting to complete the pilgrimage in the shortest possible time. Many start the yatra on an empty stomach deciding not to consume any food or drink before reaching the cave.

In many cases, persons with existing medical problems have been able to obtain registration after furnishing invalid Compulsory Health Certificates (CHC). In one such example, a pilgrim, who had recently undergone a bypass surgery, had obtained a CHC declaring him fit to undertake the arduous yatra. Earlier, the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) had urged the pilgrims to go for a “thorough medical check-up” before undertaking the yatra. Even Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had called on the yatris to produce genuine CHCs.

Photo: AP

Despite all the warnings, there has been little change on the ground. One major reason cited for the rising death toll is the unacceptably higher number of pilgrims who are allowed on the yatra each year, say green activists. “Around one lakh people undertook the yatra through 2002-05. Now, the number has risen to seven lakh,” says Nadeem Qadiri, executive director of the Centre for Environmental Law. “There are tonnes of solid waste littered along the route. Even the waste from last year has not been removed. This is unsustainable and has dangerous consequences for the area’s ecology.” He adds that there are only 40 toilets available for the pilgrims.

However, Governor NN Vohra, who is also the SASB chairman, has now ordered a special sanitation drive along the yatra route to safeguard the ecology. “A special sanitation drive should be launched by Pahalgam and Sonmarg development authorities to ensure cleanliness along the tracks and around the camps,” said Vohra.

Green activists are also calling for the implementation of the 1996 Nitish Sengupta report, in which he had recommended that only a restricted number of pilgrims be allowed to visit the holy cave.

“There should not be more than 20,000 pilgrims at a time on the high ranges. This is to ensure that in case a natural disaster occurs, the effect on pilgrims would be minimal,” Sengupta wrote in an article in 2009. “If there are larger numbers of pilgrims on the high ranges and say a natural disaster occurs, casualties might be high. As long as only 20,000 pilgrims are there, they would be able to take shelter in existing huts and be safe,” he added.

Riyaz Wani is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
riyaz@tehelka.com

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