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Annual Amarnath Yatra

Heads We Win, Tails You Lose

By Yoginder Kandhari

Amarnathji Yatra has routinely been mired in controversies ever since outbreak of militancy in Kashmir valley.  Communal forces in the Valley, separatists and political parties alike, have been in the forefront to conjure up pretexts to oppose smooth conduct of this Yatra. Kashmiri Muslims fully understand the economic benefits of this annual event yet, bread on rabid communal fodder; they oppose this age old Hindu religious activity in Muslim majority Valley for reasons religious. Last year’s uproar in the Valley, over transfer of land to Amarnathji Shrine Board, crossed all limits of reasonableness to manifest extreme religious intolerance. State administration had almost capitulated to the communal demands from the Valley had Jammu not risen in a rare spontaneity  against  Kashmiri Muslim hegemony to compel State administration see reason and restore a semblance of secular order. It is not that Kashmiri Muslims want Yatra to be discontinued; they love it for commercial gains but hate to allow it as it impinges on their communal mindset.

Amarnath Cave

Much that Kashmiri Muslims may want us to believe that the Holy Cave of Amarnathji was discovered by a Muslim in eighteenth century; the truth is that Amarnathji Tirtha finds mention in Neelmatpurana and Rajtarangni predating their claim. Due to poor communications, cold climate and lack of facilities, earlier the Yatra was limited in duration and participation. Besides local Kashmiri Pandits, the Yatra was undertaken mostly by Sadhus with a sprinkling of Guajarati and Bengali pilgrims. Yatra would commence from Akhara Building in Srinagar and move to Durga Nag, at the foot of Shankracharya hill, for performing puja of the holy mace before proceeding to the Holy Cave via Pampur- Awantipur –Bijbihara –Mattan -Pahalgam-Chandanwari- Sheshnag- Panjtarni.  It would culminate, as to this date, with the darshan of ice Lingam on Shrawan Purnima.   Facilities en-route and at the staging camps were generally provided by voluntary organizations with minimal governmental assistance. However, with improvement in communications and affordability, the number of pilgrims grew year after year. Today, Amarnathji Yatra has assumed the significance of a major Hindu pilgrimage and pilgrims include NRIs in hordes. Increasing numbers necessitated establishment of a statutory body to conduct the Yatra. Accordingly, much to the chagrin of separatists and other Valley based communal parties; Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) was established in 2000 by an Act of Jammu and Kashmir Legislature on lines of Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board, Katra (J&K). With establishment of SASB, there has been a marked improvement in facilities available to the pilgrims and, more importantly, these are now affordable. Thus, the popularity of the Yatra grew manifold and lakhs started queuing up for darshan compelling SASB to extend the Yatra duration to two months from 2005 onwards. There was a lot of breast beating against this extension by the then Chief Minister, Mufti Mohd Sayeed but indomitable Lt. Gen. (Retd.) S. K. Sinha, the then J&K Governor and Chairman of SASB, stood his ground forcing the Chief Minister to relent.

However, upgrading of the facilities has not kept pace with the grandiose plans for facilities drawn by the SASB and a lot more needs to be done. Upgradation plans are suffering neither for want of willingness on part of the SASB to execute its responsibilities nor for adequacy of funds. Attitude of communal Kashmiri political establishment and bureaucracy is the major stumbling block. Otherwise, how can one explain that the road alignment from Ranga Mor, on Srinagar-Leh Highway, to Domel, on route to the Holy Cave on Baltal axis, has not been blacktopped even though central government has released Rs.20 Cr, about four years back, for the purpose. The sate government would not let it happen.  Kashmiri politicians have raised environmental concerns over this issue while the same politicians conveniently ignore the fact that beautiful Gulmarg meadows have been ravaged by a crisscross of blacktop roads. Today, Gulmarg has more concrete cover than the green one. But, there are no compunctions over it for it does not facilitate a Hindu religious activity.

Amarnathji Yatra and Kashmiri Muslims

Kashmiri Muslim business community, local administration, separatists and political parties, though with stakes in the annual Yatra, nurture an ulterior agenda of erasing all Hindu religious and cultural linkages from Kashmir. Each Yatri is valued at Rs.30,000/= by local business and the convention has it that he has to be divested of that amount prior to his departure from the Valley. Last year an estimated 4 lakh Yatris visited the Holy Shrine and the amount of money that was pumped into the Valley’s economy is a matter of simple calculation.   This amount was distributed throughout the length and breadth of the Valley from a pithoo, lugging baggage en-route the Holy Cave, to the Shikarawala in the Dal to a ponywala in the meadows of Gulmarg et al. Thus, the business class wants the Yatra to continue but on its own terms and conditions. Yet, Yatris are treated shabbily and even threatened should they not fall in line.

With establishment of SASB, Yatris started enjoying better facilities and that too on affordable rates thus reducing, to some extent, the loot by the locals. Resentment from the locals started brewing. One can not help but quote an instance from 2007 Yatra season when SASB had ‘dared’ to call for labour contract tenders for setting up various facilities along the two routes to the Holy Cave. The contractor who had quoted lowest rates was coerced to stay away and the local contractor, who had the monopoly for labour contract till then, too boycotted the SASB in a show of defiance to latter’s authority. The stalemate ended only when SASB reached an understanding with this local contractor and that too on his terms and conditions. By then the Yatra was already in full swing. With no pre-fabricated huts erected, one can well imagine the harrowing experience the Yatris underwent. Needless to say, all the huts ultimate did come up but only by the end of the Yatra season. Mostly, these huts remained unoccupied since the Yatra had petered off by then. The local contractor had thus sent a strong massage to SASB without in any way impairing his annual revenue.

Further more, that year the housekeeping contract for the prefabricated huts had been awarded to a party from Jammu. This contractor too was boycotted by the locals as no labour was forthcoming for unloading truck loads of bedding meant for the huts until an agreement was reached with the locals at exorbitant rates.  Even the basic amenities, like water and electricity, were not restored to the camps resulting in major security and sanitation problems. With no lavatories erected, it was a common sight to find Yatris, including ladies, relieving themselves in the open.  It was a sabotage designed to serve every Kashmiri stakeholder’s interest. The local labour proved more than a point to the Shrine Board. Besides causing a lot of inconvenience to the Yatris, it reaffirmed its monopoly over rates and right to the contract and also provided enough fodder to the separatists and political parties to rake up sanitation and environmental concerns. Harassment of the housekeeping contractor from Jammu helped the local business as he, inspite of having been awarded contract up to 2009, opted out.

Local administration openly targets SASB for poor Yatra management thus building-up a case for the local Tourism Department to takeover all the arrangements for the Yatra. That arrangement would suite all for they then can share the booty. Less said about the local police the better. Medical Department too was not to be left behind. Centre allotted Rs. 1.1 Cr. and 1.5 Cr. to the state government for providing medical cover for the Yatra in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Not even 25% of the budget was spent for the right purposes.

Environmental Concerns –A Myth

Mehbooba Mufti often loses her breath while raking up Amarnathji Yatra controversies. Her major assault on the Yatra has always been via environmental concerns. Mainstay of her argument is poor sanitation in camps and perceived danger Yatra poses to the ecology of the area. As for sanitation, she needs to be educated that the technology being used for treatment of human waste, in various staging camps, is the best available in the world. She would be better advised to take a cue from the Yatra arrangements and replicate the same technology in Hazratbal complex for there is a crying need to block effluents from contaminating the Dal Lake further. She needs to worry more about shrinking circumferences of the Dal and the Wular lakes and unabated concrete invasions overwhelming Sonamarg, Pahalgam and Gulmarg rather than exposing her rabid communal mindset by aimlessly opposing Amarnathji Yatra without any logic or reason. Shrine Board is extremely sensitive to the environmental concerns and has not constructed a single permanent structure in the area. Incidentally, only concrete structures to have come up above the ground level are Jamia masjids at Baltal and Panjtarni.  Erecting and dismantling temporary structures, year after year, cost Shrine Board dearly yet the Board does not bemoan that loss; for it’s commitment to ecological preservation is unflinching and unlike rabble-rousing and self-seeking Kashmiri politicians and bureaucrats. Separatists too have nothing different to agitate about.  Kashmiri political parties, separatists and bureaucrats are hand-in-glove in raising controversy after controversy about the annual Yatra.

What does SASB need to do now?

Under the prevailing circumstances, SASB has been doing a fair job so far. However, a lot more needs to be done to make the Yatra more affordable and comfortable for all classes of Yatris. SASB should not lose sight of the very objectives of its incorporation. First and foremost, it must not succumb to the communal forces inimical to conduct of Yatra itself by permitting its brazen commercialization by the locals. This could be done by:

  • Compiling an exhaustive information brochure containing all the details about Yatra including the rates fixed for available facilities and services. Such brochure should be posted on the SASB website and its printed copies also be made available to Yatris.

  • Establishing all the facilities for Yatris, like prefab huts, medical aid posts etc, well before commencement of the Yatra. So far ancillary facilities to the camps, like electricity, water supply, telephone connectivity etc, are provisioned by local authorities much after commencement of the Yatra thus causing a lot of inconvenience to the Yatris. This anomaly needs to be sorted out.

  • Irrespective of being owned by Shrine Board or by the private operators, SASB should take full commercial control of all services and facilities by:

    • Fixing rates, well in advance, for all the services provided by the locals and advertising those prominently.  Mere fixing of rates, as has been done thus far, is a halfhearted measure to prevent overcharging as the actual realization is then left solely to the integrity of the private operator. That precisely was the reason why, in 2008, pilgrims hiring ponies, on the traditional route, had to dish out amounts upwards of Rs.11,000/= per pony or  Dandiwalas , on Baltal route, brazenly fleeced old and infirm Yatris by settling for nothing less than Rs.22,000=00 per trip or  privates tent owners charging Rs. 150/= per bucket of hot water from the shivering Yatris. Such is the secular texture of the Yatra.  As a counter measure, SASB needs to establish counters, to be manned by its staff, for booking of such facilities by the Yatris.

    • Not outsourcing booking of prefab huts and helicopter tickets to travel agents since they have been utilizing availability of quotas with them as a tool for selling expensive tour packages to the Yatris. SASB should handle such bookings itself. Minimum 75% of the available quota should be set aside for booking on spot by the pilgrims across counters to be established by SASB while balance 25% should be released on Shrine Board website for  booking  by the Yatris  in advance..

    • Provision of adequate parking space for the vehicles at the staging camps. It is a common knowledge that inadequacy of parking space at Baltal, besides causing acute traffic jam right from Sonamarg to the Camp location, is a source of easy pickings for local cops on duty. Greater the chaos fuller the pockets of the very personnel who have been entrusted with the job of restoring order to traffic. A simple solution is to shift parking to Sonamarg and to run a ferry service there from.

SASB also needs to upgrade medical facilities at every ‘parao’.  Evacuation of seriously sick patients by helicopter needs a more deliberate integration of all agencies than the loose arrangement which is in place at present. To make medical cover responsive, the equipment needs to be augmented with volunteer doctors and other paramedical staff rather than by those deputed unwillingly through a duty roster.

Shrine Board must also consider the option of sponsoring an alternative route to the Holy Cave via Manali- Leh- Sonamarg.  After all, a number of groups did take this route to reach Baltal after the agitators had choked all the roads in Kashmir during last year’s Yatra season and these Yatris had nothing to complain about. Besides obvious economic benefits accruing to remote Ladakh region which has been starved of adequate developmental funds till now, it shall puncture communal arrogance of a section of Kashmiri Muslims’ claim to monopoly over the conduct of this Yatra. This route also offers an ideal site at Gumri for operation of an affordable helicopter service since flying time to the Holy Cave would be drastically reduced  to just three minutes. Handicap of severe cold conditions at some places, along this route, could well be taken care of by erecting better facilities for the pilgrims for then there shall be none to raise the bogey of environmental degradation. Plans to construct rail link to Leh along this axis may ultimately prove to be a boon for the Yatris and the people of Ladakh region.

Lastly, SASB needs to revamp its organizational structure. It needs capable managers at the helm rather than retired government servants. It needs to shrug itself off bureaucratic inertia and galvanize into a dynamic organization capable not only of efficient management but also be able to visualize and stimulate long term planning. But, that is not as great a challenge as the one posed by concerted affront intended at the Hindu heritage in Kashmir and on its linkage to mainland India by communal forces in the Valley. SASB needs to discern machinations unleashed by the forces hell bent to paint Kashmir completely green. Shrine Board must decipher last year’s Amarnathji land agitation, in Kashmir, as yet another dimension of the ongoing war to dislodge India from the Valley. Amarnathji Yatra is not merely a pilgrimage; it is one of the many manifestations of the very concept of India.

Kashmiris Muslims of all hues want the Yatra to go on till eternity but on their own terms. On one hand, they regard it as a pure economic activity while on the other they show scant regard to the religious sensitivity of the very people who constitute it. It is Kashmiri Muslim hegemony at its best, conveying ‘heads we win, tails you lose’.

Source: Kashmir Sentinel



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