SHREE AMARNATH SHRINE BOARD-A STATE WITHIN A STATE

Shree Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) is once again in news albeit for wrong reasons. It has been reported that it is stealthily” carrying out construction work at a sewage treatment plant at the Nunwan base camp in Pahalgam in total violation of standing orders & instructions passed by Honb’le J&K High Court in this regard. It has also been reported that “Centre for Science & Environment” (CS&E),a New-Delhi based organization, known for expertise in sanitation management has advised SASB to evaluate the sewage treatment facility at Nunwan Base Camp while recommending scientific management and strengthening of the existing sewage treatment at the camp site without raising over ground structures.

While construction of a sewage treatment plant on scientific lines does not ipso-facto pose any problem and should broadly be welcomed, the question is why does the Board have to violate the instructions passed by Honb’le J&K High Court governing all constructions in Phalgam & surrounding areas. While the local residents & Hoteliers are barred even to carry out minor & essential repairs to their dwellings or Hotels, the Board is discreetly carrying on such activities in broad daylight. A recent visit by eminent members of the Civil Society to Phalgam has also revealed a massive drop-gate being constructed at Chandanwari ostensibly for controlling the rush of Yatris.. But the locals have unequivocally alleged that they are not allowed free movement beyond the said gate. This points to some sinister design on the part of Shrine Board. Does the Board think that it is above law and can get away with every thing it wishes? In other words –has it acquired the status of a “State within a State”? We will have to examine this in view of the historical context & statutory provisions governing SASB.

It needs to be told that the formation of a Board was first recommended by Nitish Sen-Gupta Committee which was constituted in the aftermath of 1996 snow storm in which more than two hundred yatris & twenty five locals & security personnel extending logistic support were killed. Among other things, the committee recommended restriction on Number of Yatris and shortning the duration of Yatra. In total ignorance of the other recommendations, Shri Amarnath Shrine Board Act was passed in the year 2000 which gave a legal shape to the present Board. At that time the State was under the rule of National Conference which had been put in place with the help of renegades & coercion of security forces in 1996. There was no public debate or wide ranging discussions on the Act. Farooq Abdullah, the then chief Minster, feeling highly insecure for power, particularly after his unceremonious dismissal in 1984, did not even allow to raise a query.

Two provisions of SASB Act deserve a special mention here. One is section 5 of the Act which confers a status of “body corporate” to the Board. By dint of this provisions, the Board has a perpetual succession and can, among other things, acquire property, movable or immovable, in the State in its own name. It defies logic as to how our legislators and especially the protagonists of Autonomy among them, allowed this provision in the Act particularly when nearly 80% of the members of the Board are non State Subjects.

Another Provision in the Act –section 17 confers total immunity to the Board and its employees for all its acts & deeds done in good Faith. By virtue of this provision the board & its employees virtually enjoy complete immunity for all their acts. That means even if the Board vandalises the whole environment of Phalgam & its surrounding area, it cannot be tried in a Court of law simply because of the good faith clause. Remember the Honb’le High Court of J&K has already delivered a Judgment in favour of the Board on the basis of this clause.

The Act soon became a conspiratorial tool in the hands of then communal & scheming Governor S.K.Sinha(Indira Gandhi had earlier denied him the promotion to post of Army Chief on the basis of his communal bent of mind) who had a well planned hidden agenda in mind. And things came to stand soon after Mufti took reins of power following 2002 elections.Recall the infamous statement of Arun Kumar, the CEO of SASB (who as a member of the IAS was principal secretary to the governor) on 1 January 2008 wherein he claimed that the legislature had no authority to question the SASB. Or the statement issued on 16 June of the same year that forest land had been "permanently transferred" and that the board had paid the state government Rs 1.25 crore to purchase the land, that the period of the yatra should be extended, and that Kashmiris were willing to wink at "pollution caused by Muslims but not by Hindus". These statements were meant to provoke anger.

In view of all this, the Board has undoubtedly become a “State within a State” and the responsibility squarely lies with the NC regime of that time for passing an act without due application of mind. But let us expect due diligence from the Present head of the Board, Sh. N.N.Vohra, a seasoned & matured person, who needs to ensure that nothing of the sort is done that will create a 2008 like situation.