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Jammu and Kashmir: Pilgrim?s Progress Causes Regression

One needs to question the propriety of official promotion of the Amarnath yatra, for the pilgrimage now involves the movement of over 5,00,000 pilgrims in an ecologically fragile area. The Indian government views the yearning for moksha (salvation) that takes so many devotees to the challenging heights of Kashmir as "a fitting gesture of solidarity with our, valiant soldiers", elevating the pilgrimage to a patriotic enterprise. A bigger mess seems to be in the making even as secular concerns go unheeded.


Pilgrim’s Progress CausesRegression

One needs to question the propriety of official promotion of the Amarnath yatra, for the pilgrimage now involves the movement of over 5,00,000 pilgrims in an ecologically fragile area. The Indian government views the yearning for moksha (salvation) that takes so many devotees to the challenging heights of Kashmir as “a fitting gesture of solidarity with our, valiant soldiers”, elevating the pilgrimage to a patriotic enterprise. A bigger mess seems to be in the making even as secular concerns go unheeded.


n “secular” India matters related to religious practices brook no interference from reason or common sense. Therefore, to question the propriety of promoting pilgrimage in an ecologically fragile area is considered tantamount to prohibiting devotees the right to free movement and worship. This question comes to mind when looking at the Amarnath yatra. Those who sound the warning do not advocate prohibiting pilgrimage per se. Rather they caution against allowing increasing number of pilgrims. This increase is not of a few hundred or a few thousand, but a few hundred thousand. There has been a doubling of the period for pilgrimage from one month to two this year as well as a 40-fold increase in the number of pilgrims, from 12,000 in 1989 to 4,50,000 in 2005 (this year it is set to cross 5,00,000), which are a cause for concern. In fact the actual period is longer because a fortnight before the official yatra is reserved for servicemen and their families to visit the Amarnath cave through the ecologically more vulnerable Baltal route. Moreover, in order to provide security for the pilgrims who come out in strength, security forces have to be deployed in large numbers. The current deployment will be in excess of 20,000 for the entire period. Their presence and stay cannot but affect the rise in pollution levels. Inclement weather too is an issue because rains in the plain means snow in the higher reaches. This results in crowding at the camps, straining services, including the disposal of waste. But worse things can happen, as in 1996 when unexpected heavy snowfall resulted in the death of 243 pilgrims and

injuries to hundred more. However, both the danger posed by unpredictable weather as well as the threat of environmental damage can be reduced by restricting the number of pilgrims and shortening the period of pilgrimage.

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The State Pollution Control Board, in a recent report warns that generation of waste by pilgrims, absence of waste disposal sites, open dumping of garbage, air pollution, sewage generated by hotels, yatri camps and local residential areas makes its way into the Lidder river. The SPCB has warned that the waste generated by pilgrims primarily contains plastics, polythene and leftover food packets all along the route. According to their calculation, 55,000 kgs of plastic waste is generated every day during the pilgrimage. Besides, thousands of open toilets erected along the banks of the Lidder river ensures that effluents enter the river. Thousands of vehicles ply up and down the mountains around Pahalgam all the way up to Chandanwari, spewing carbon monoxide. The Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), which came into existence on February 21, 2001, has been dismissive of such claims. They assert that the 230 pre-fabricated toilets being raised in the Nunwan base camp and disposal of the human waste in leach pits with micro-organic technology using Bokaslin powder and other chemicals would take care of the problem. However, the issue is more than the supposedly effective modern methods to manage waste. The sheer presence of a large mass of people is a cause for concern. The department of science and technology (DST), through its principal investigator on glaciology, has argued that “the ecology, the environment and health of the glacier can be under severe threat in case the Baltal route to the Holy Cave was frequented by thousands of pilgrims”. The DST further pointed out that “depletion and degradation (of glaciers) are the result of human breath, refuse and land erosion” (The Tribune, July 5, 2005).

It is disconcerting to note that the opening of the Baltal route for pilgrims on foot and for those using helicopters has crossed several thousands every day. Apart from the DST of the Jammu and Kashmir government, even the Nitish Sengupta Committee, which was constituted to look into the deaths of 243 pilgrims in 1996 due to the snowstorm, had recommended that the number of yatris be restricted to 5,000 per day for a period of one month and the total number of pilgrims be capped at 1.5 lakh. The Baltal route should allow 1,500 pilgrims and Pahalgam 3,500 per day. However, the general J R Mukherjee Committee, which looked into the cause of death of 35 people, due to cross fire, during the 2000 yatra, focused on security arrangements and wanted the duration of the yatra to increase as the security scenario improved. But neither report looked at the environmental impact of the yatra. Thus, when the SASB invokes the recommendations of the two committees, what it does is to use them selectively and link the number of pilgrims to the issue of managing security for them. In this sense they underplay the question whether the ecosystem can bear a heavy influx of pilgrims. This emphasis on encouraging a larger number of pilgrims shows its impact on the environment in unexpected ways. The SASB is contemplating “air conditioning” to preserve the “shivalingam” from melting. The recent controversy over pilgrims alleging that the SASB has been constructing the “snow lingam” is now being passed off as due to change in the course of the water channels after last year’s earthquake and global warming. Without ruling this out, human contribution to this phenomenon cannot be ignored when glaciers are rapidly receding. As a matter of fact, the yatra was never undertaken in June precisely because formation of the “shivalingam” does not always take place then. Incidentally, the local people speak of “human” intervention in restoring what is a natural phenomenon, as something that has happened in the past too. This apart, a large number of pilgrims means that the going gets tough as one draws close to the cave with traffic jams being the order of

Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006 the day. At times pilgrims have to wait for hours for their turn. Increase in dust in the atmosphere too is caused by the crowds of people as well as the helicopter service. The dust raised is visible from a long distance away. All this also means that ordinary pilgrims, that is, other than VIPs, are not allowed to spend more than a few seconds inside the cave. Above all, carbon dioxide levels shoot up, warming the area all around.

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It cannot be that the SASB is unaware of the environmental concerns. If such concerns receive short shrift it is because the yatra has come to symbolise the Indian government’s determination to promote its claim in J and K. The pilgrimage is being officially heralded as a victory against the movement demanding “azaadi” from India. The news portal hosted by the Press Information Bureau says that “yearning for moksha (salvation) can move the devotees to the challenging heights of Kashmir and will be a fitting gesture of solidarity with our valiant soldiers who have been fighting the enemy to defend our borders” ( Thus, what is otherwise merely a religious pilgrimage of the Hindus has been elevated to represent a patriotic enterprise. Besides, the SASB is headed by the governor and his principal secretary is its CEO. Thus, the government of India is clearly in charge of organising the yatra. And it is the SASB that has been pushing for larger and larger numbers of pilgrims and challenging the right of the state government interfering with the schedule announced by the SASB. It is true that not everyone who goes to Amarnath accepts this association of religion with patriotism. But the fact of the matter is that the official perception of the pilgrimage as a patriotic duty has allowed the communal fascist elements to join in organising their supporters. Little wonder that the frequency of conflict between a section of such “pilgrims” and the local population due to the former’s obnoxious behaviour has shown an increase. What is equally disconcerting is that the SASB presided over by the governor has also been engaged in controversial transactions. The present CEO’s wife, in her capacity of principal secretary of the forest department granted permission to SASB on May 29, 2005 to use forest land. But this provision was not in accordance with the provision of the J and K Forest Conservation Act 1997 and, therefore, the state government withdrew the order. However, thanks to a stay order by a division bench of the J and K High Court the withdrawal of permission to occupy forest land, was suspended. Any visitor to Pahalgam can observe how this forest land is being cleared to set up camps for the yatris. In fact, now the SASB has asked the state government to give them land in the radius of five kms of the cave. This arouses local passions precisely because the Indian security forces and other entities have transferred large tracts of land to house camps for security force personnel, or for central projects, as well as for schools, which are run by the army, among others. Even the National Conference Party has protested its resentment at such transfers of land since 1989. Not very far from the camp for the pilgrims in Pahalgam, in Lidru (opposite Kulan village) what locals describe as one of the finest meadows, spread over 550 kanals (one kanal is one eighth of acre) in area, has been given to the army to run a school! The local population feels helpless at being unable to stop this. Therefore, when the SASB wants large tracts of land transferred to it under the claim of providing accommodation for lakhs of pilgrims, it must be weighed against this local concern. Were the numbers of pilgrims to be brought down, the pressing need for transferring large areas to SASB or for providing carpet security, and thus deployment of force, can be reduced.

This apart the SASB has also been involved in other controversial acts. One such was the recent attempt by the SASB to bring down the involvement of local people in the yatra. When on June 5, 2006 the PDP claimed that the SASB was ignoring the livelihood of locals, the latter countered by claiming that such criticism would generate controversy and thus “jeopardise” tourism in Kashmir. The PDP then pointed out that if local porters and ponywallahs can strike work at Vaishnodevi shrine against the (mis)management of the Shri Vaishnodevi Shrine Board (SVDSB) and seek support from local Congress leaders, then what is wrong if local people from Pahalgam and Kangan areas seek their help to protest against the practices of the SASB, which discriminate against them. In fact, the Pithoo Workers Union at Katra has protested the suspension of six of their leaders, alleged manhandling by SVDSB officials and demanded recall of its additional CEO. Neither the governor as head of SVDSB nor the Board issued any statement chastising the Congress Party!

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Arguably, when yatra was halted between 1991and 1996 due to threats from a section of the militants, it played into the hands of the extreme right wing elements in Indian society who have since then become an integral part of mobilising large numbers of pilgrims. Thus, a form of competitive communalism came into play. When a section of the militants represented earlier by Harkatul Ansar and now Lashkare-Toiba or Jaish-e-Mohammed threaten to



Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006

disrupt the pilgrimage it only provokes devout Hindus and draws them to the rabidly anti-Muslim VHP and Shiv Sena, and accentuates the communal divide. However, it is equally important to note the actual fact that more people have died in the yatra due to inclement weather and cross fire than at the hands of the militants. Besides, the main indigenous militant organisation, Hizbul Mujahideen has always supported the yatra and has consistently demonstrated its opposition towards those who have tried to disrupt the yatra. Moreover, prior to constituting the SASB, the state government, local people and social activists provided aid and assistance to the pilgrims. However, the threat of environmental damage has become a matter of utmost concern because the central government, under the cover of SASB, remains unrelenting in its pursuit of ever larger numbers to come for the pilgrimage.

In a way the Amarnath yatra illustrates the manner in which the Indian government injects communalism in our body politic. It also illustrates how secularism in India has been perverted to mean state patronage of religion/s. This patronage is not equitably distributed, since Hindus outnumber others by more than eight times. Which is to say that between unequals, equality ends up promoting Hindu religious practices. In the case of the Amarnath yatra, in fact, the Indian government has even discarded any pretension of neutrality by publicising the yatra as a patriotic duty! Consequently, the likelihood of the Amarnath pilgrimage getting mired in controversy, over environmental damage and eventually feeding into further alineation of the local people because they can do little to prevent damage to their lived environment, has increased. The Indian government seems to be projecting the yatra as a patriotic enterprise to boost the morale of the Indian security forces, the very same force that the local population regards as symbolic of their oppression. A bigger mess seems to be in the making even as secular concerns go unheeded. m


Economic and Political Weekly July 8-15, 2006

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