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Impact of Amarnath Yatra on Environment, Ecology and Biodiversity of the area

By M.M. Munshi

Environmentalism is a broad hypothesis, ideology and social moment regarding concerns for environmental conservation and necessary improvement. For these reasons concepts such as land ethics, environmental ethics, ecology, biodiversity and biophilla hypothesis figure prominently. Earth sciences usually recognize four spheres namely (i) Lithospheres, (II) Hydrosphere, (III) Atmosphere and (iv) Biosphere - corresponding to rocks and soil, water, air and life. Some scientists also include as part of the spheres “Crysophere” corresponding to ice.

Basically environment is an attempt to balance relations between humans and various natural systems on which they depend in such a way that all the components are accorded a proper degree of respect. Environment is viewed today a setting aside of natural resources to prevent the damage caused by humans or human activity such as deforestation, mining, hunting, fishing, and over grazing by domestic livestock and replace them with them with human activities. Ecology is the scientific study of relationships living organisms have with each other and with the natural environment, and at the same time it must be clearly understood synonymous with environment. Biodiversity is the degree of the variation of life forms within a specific species eco system, biome of the planet.

Let us examine without any bias how far the Amarnath Yatra which has been going on for about two millenniums, but in recent years the number of pilgrims has increased from few thousand to about six lacks for one season how that has effected environment, ecology or bio diversity. It is an established fact that too and fro moment of Pilgrims on foot, ponies or dandis is restricted strictly to tracks from the road heads of Chandanwari and Baltal to the Amarnath cave shrine Not a single pilgrim is allowed to move beyond the width of the either tracks and as such the blame of their degradation on pilgrims is biased and unfounded.

Same is true of the Vashio Devi shrine which is visited by about eighty to ninety lack people annually with practically no damage to its environment or ecology, in spite of the fact that the track has been considerably widened.

The truth is that degradation of environment mainly is effected by shepherds i.e. Bakarwals, Kashmiri shepherds (Pahels), Gujars and others some of whom carry firearms who freely roam anywhere they like, fell trees illegally,  create forest fires by carelessness overgraze the pastures by their herds of sheep, goats and buffalos with the result that the herbivorous wild life like Kashmir Stag (Hangul), Ibex (Kail), Markhor, Baral etc. in upper reaches of Sind and Lidar valleys have been doomed to extinction. The scarcity of herbivorous wildlife has also reduced the number of carnivorous wild animals like Brown Bear (Bam Haput). Panther (Sha) Snow Leopard, Lynx etc. have become the endangered species as the latter preyed on the former. Besides the shepherds the muleteers/pony wallas also degrade the environment by letting loose their ponies/mules at night who pollute the clear waterways with dung and water becomes unsafe for drinking. If a road or a Gulmarg-Khilanmarg- Alpathar type of ropeway is built between the road heads and the shrine cave the environmental degradation and pollution caused by ponies and pony wallas will come down to negligible. The civil society, and the concerned authorities of the govt. and shrine board turn a blind eye to these activities.

A lot of hue and cry has been raised by self-appointed experts namely members of civil society, politicians, bureaucrats and officers of other state govt. departments and the shrine board about the cryosphere that Glaciers are getting degraded and the melt water polluted by increased number of pilgrims to Amarnath cave. As already stated that moment of pilgrims is restricted to the tracks how on earth can they degrade the glaciers and pollute the melt water. There are five major glaciers around Amarnath namely Nehnar, Mushran and Thajwas in the Sind valley and Koenjar (Shushram) above the Zamtir nag and Gashbrar Kolahi in the Lidar valley but none of these glaciers are traversed by the Baltal, Chandanwari or Gulol Gali tracks. However a very small glacier between Vayurjana (Vowjan) pass and Panjtarangini (Panjtarni) runs parallel to the track but does not cross it. It is doubted that if any of these self styled experts can differentiate between a real glacier and snow accumulated in depressions, narrow glens by drift, avalanches and creep. Many of these snow beds and snow bridges have been confused with glaciers even in places like Chandanwari and along the Baltal route. A glacier is not a seasonal feature like an avalanche or snow creep but a large persistent body of ice formed by gradual expulsion of air from huge thickness of snow for several decades, under its own weight where accumulation exceeds ablation [melting] above the firn line and moves down the slopes at a velocity of one to three feet a day. I doubt if the civil society and other self styled experts can state the local Kashmiri name for a glacier. If they had consulted an experienced glaciologist/geologist this confusion would not have resulted.

How far the members of the civil society politicians (including separatists), bureaucrats and other officials of the state govt and shrine board are environmental conscious is a million dollar question. Motorable Mughal route across the Pir Panjal range between Rajouri and Shupian was built at an enormous cost after cutting innumerable Deodar and other valuable trees through the only sanctuary for Markhor [a highly endangered species of goat] on our side of the LOC thus eliminating its chance of survival. The road from Tangmarg to Gulmarg and aerial ropeway from Gulmarg to Alapathar are not regarded as an environmental hazards but a road or a ropeway. upto Amarnath cave which besides totally preventing any degradation of environment, ecology etc can sustain yatra for a longer period as clearance of snow will not be necessary is also considered as an environmental hazard. A 14 km long road from Baltal upto Amarnath Shrine cave may be costly to maintain but how it will prove disastrous when the road from Sumbal to Zojila which runs all along the Sind River eastwards of Ganderbal and the upper and lower Sind projects for power generations have not caused any environmental degradation A pilot flying frequently over Kashmir valley requesting anonymity informed that forests extend at the most for about 150-200 meters on either sides of the highways rest of the hill slopes are bare even below the tree line. Another reason for opposing the construction of road or ropeway is that Anantnag District through which runs the Pahalgam Chandanwari is stronghold of one political party and Ganderbal District through which runs the Baltal track is the stronghold of another rival party none of them wants to loose of their vote banks of Pony wallas and porters. The call of the so called Civil society and others calling for a rethink on SC order is nothing short of hypocrisy.

The author is the retired Director in Charge, Operations Jammu and Kashmir, Geological Survey of India, was Director, Environmental Geology, Central Region, Geological Survey of India, has also carried out the Study of Glacier in Western Himalayas During the international Geophysical year and is Fellow of the British Glaciological Society.




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