JAMMU & KASHMIR
After notice from the Supreme court, health minister reviews Amarnath camps
Pilgrim’s progress: Amarnath death toll rises to 83, government asked to provide enough safeguard to yatris and the ecology
After being criticised from various quarters over the rising toll of deaths at the ongoing Amarnath Yatra, a team led by J&K Health Minister Sham Lal Sharma on Monday visited the camps for yatris at Nunwan, Sheshnag, Panjtarni, Holy cave and Baltal to take stock of the medical facilities that are being provided to them. The team included minister of state for health Javid Ahmad Dar and chief executive officer of Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) Navin K Choudhary.
Taking suo moto note of the rising death toll at the pilgrimage, the Supreme Court has issued notices to the Centre and J&K government to seek details about the cause of the deaths. The court has also raised environmental concerns and questioned the government’s wisdom in sending seven times the number of pilgrims for the darshan considering the fragile ecological condition of the area.
More than five lakh pilgrims have performed yatra over the last three weeks and the death toll has already reached around 83. Last year, 105 pilgrims had died during the yatra period.
“What is the cause for such high casualty rate and whether there exists the required medical equipment to ensure that in future such casualties can be avoided,” the apex court asked. The court has taken note of inadequate facilities that hinder the progress along the yatra route. “It is expected of the government and the concerned authorities to devote more attention and provide appropriate amenities and facilities to protect the lives of individuals, the environment as well as to make the yatra effective and successful, preferably without any human casualty," the SC stated.
The SC has also termed the yatra route “a very sensitive place from the environmental point of view” because of its being prone to landslides and such other calamities and called for the government to take adequate steps to control the situation.
The team of officials also visited Medical Aid Centres (MAC) and checked the availability of medicines, essential diagnostic and treatment equipment for the pilgrims.
A statement issued by the government talks about doctors, posted along the yatra route, complained to Sham that many yatris do not come up with adequate clothing and start the climb without any acclimatization attempting to complete the pilgrimage in the shortest possible time. Many of them start the yatra from Baltal or Panjtarni on an empty stomach deciding not to consume any food or drink before reaching their destination.
The doctors, the statement says, have also told the Health Minister that in many cases persons with existing medical problems have been able to obtain registration after furnishing Compulsory Health Certificates (CHC), which are obviously invalid. In one case, a pilgrim who had recently undergone a bypass surgery had been able to obtain a CHC declaring him fit to undertake the arduous yatra.
Earlier, SASB had urged pilgrims to go for a ‘thorough medical check up’, before undertaking yatra. Even Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has called on yatris to produce genuine CHCs.
Despite all the warnings and cautionary messages, there has so far been little change on the ground. The death toll has continued to mount and looks set to surpass the number of casualties last year. One major reason for this, according to environmental groups, is the unacceptably higher number of pilgrims that are allowed on the yatra each year. “The number of yatris has grown exponentially over the past years. Around one lakh people performed yatra through 2002 to 2005 but now the number has risen to seven lakh. This is unsustainable under the current circumstances and has dangerous consequences for the ecology of the area,” says Nadeem Qadiri, the executive director of the Centre for Environmental Law referring to the huge amount of human, solid waste that remain piled on in the area even years later.
Qadiri also said there is no proper arrangement for the solid waste management along the yatra route. “I would tell you there are tonnes of solid waste littered along the pilgrimage route. Even the waste from last year has not been removed,” says Qadiri adding that there are only 40 latrines for the five lakh pilgrims.
However, governor NN Vohra, who is the chairman of SASB, has now ordered a special sanitation drive along the yatra route to safeguard the ecology of the Valley. “A special sanitation drive should be launched by Pahalgam and Sonamarg development authorities to ensure cleanliness along the tracks and around the camps,” Vohra said addressing a high-level meeting here on Monday.
The environmental groups want the implementation of the Nitish Sengupta report on the yatra. In this 1996 one-man committee report, Sengupta had recommended that a restricted number of pilgrims should be allowed to go to the Amarnath cave at any given time.
“There should not be more than 20,000 pilgrims at a time on the high ranges, namely the stretch between Chandanwari and the holy cave. This is to ensure that in case a natural disaster occurs, the effect on pilgrims would be minimal,” Sengupta wrote in an article in 2009 when the Valley was witnessing widespread protests against the land transfer to SASB. “If there are larger numbers of pilgrims on the high ranges and say a cyclone or natural disaster occurs, casualties might be high. As long as only 20,000 pilgrims are there, they would be able to take shelter in existing huts and be safe,” he had reasoned.
Riyaz Wani is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.