The recent Judgment of the Supreme court directing State Govt. to construct roads from Phalgam to Holy Amarnath Cave before the onset of winter is the most unfortunate & ill informed instruction coming from the highest temple of Justice. In disbursing these instructions, it did not even wait for the report of the committee it formed a few days ago to look into the causes of extraordinary number of causalities faceed by the yatris in just concluded Yatra-2012. And if the debate in Indian parliament on the subject is any indication of what is going to happen next- then be prepared for the worst-the Hindu extremists have started flexing their muscles to achieve judicially in 2012 what they could not achieve politically in 2008.
The high mortality rate among Yatris this year must be a cause of concern for all right thinking people. But is construction & macdimisation of roads in the forest area the answer? No- absolutely not. The causes for high number of deaths are purely medical due to the inherent health risks associated with high altitude travel. Yatris are bus-loaded from plains and driven straightaway to Phalgam. From there they are virtually pushed to heights at 14000 feet. There is no acclimatization period in between. The result is disastrous. The vulnerable are trapped in Acute Mountain Sickness and Pulmonary Edema which causes their death. And construction & macdimisation of roads will aggravate the problem instead of solving it. By making travel faster, you will be cutting further into the already near- negligible acclimatization time. Another devastating effect of making the roads motorable will be to throw it open to local people with unimaginable adverse effects.
The area is already reeling under a colossal damage to its fragile ecology & environment. More than Eight lakh pilgrims (registerd as well as unregistered) in 2012 and an overwhelming presence of security forces and others have left black marks on this white glacial plot. The entire 3-km stretch around the holy cave is virtually a dustbin, heaps of garbage dotting the glacier all the way down to the sangam, the junction of two different routes leading to the shrine. The milky white waters of the stream hurtling down the cave are strewn with dirty clothes, half-burnt havan materials, heaps of plastic, including polythene bags and bottles, and, of course, human and animal excreta. A glacial stream, near Sangam has already dried up. One can easily note the huge gaps in the glaciers enroute and they appear receding fast. With high degree of pollution in the area, the down stream villages dependent on waters flowing from the area have started complaining of water borne diseases.
So what are the remedies left? By far the recommendations of Nitesh Sen Gupta Committee report formed in the wake of 1996 tragedy, in which 205 Yatris & and 25 porters and security personnel lost their lives in a snow storm, are the best on the subject. The report emphasized that "the pilgrimage to Amarnath is not just pilgrimage but high altitude mountaineering" (p 54). It wanted a minimum age of 15 and maximum of 65 for the yatris (p 55). It repeatedly makes the point that at this altitude the hazardous nature of the track and uncertain weather conditions call for regulating the number of pilgrims and the period of the yatra like the one enforced for Kailash Mansarovar and Gomukh shrines. In fact, the report says that along with the regulation of the total number of pilgrims to about 1 lakh during the 30-day period, the maximum number of people who can be permitted at any point of this journey at any given time should also be regulated (p 52). And adds "we could lay down a ceiling of 3,000 pilgrims that can be permitted to travel on any of these sectors, (i e, Chandanwari to Sheshnag; Sheshnag to Panjtarani; and Panjtarani to the cave) in a single day". It also calls for restricting the performance of havans at the cave since they "pollute the purity of the atmosphere and also constitute (a) fire hazard" (p 58). The report opposed a proposal to make the road from Chandanwari to Sheshnag and then up to Panjtarani motorable, because "allowing the motor vehicles to go into this area will not only damage the environment of these areas, but will also spoil the pristine scenic charm of these mountains and valleys" (p 60).
The State Govt. has a role to play here. It is constitutionally bound to protect the interests of the State & its people. It should fight the case in Apex Court before a larger bench by engaging counsels well versed with environmental laws. It cannot be a mute spectator to this sort of judicial activism.
Forest shrines were once venerated for peace, tranquility and wildness, and to aid their devotees achieve a higher state of spirituality or consciousness. Let’s not bring the city to the wilderness and spoil the very reason for these temples’ existence. The Yatris & management of shrine board need to pay heed besides obeisance.
(The author is a practicing chartered Accountant. Feed back at firstname.lastname@example.org)