Is another political controversy brewing around Amarnath yatra?
Separatist groups cite environmental concerns, oppose SC ruling on permanent upgradation of route
The Supreme Court’s intervention was expected to depoliticise the pilgrimage to Amarnath cave shrine but it appears that the court’s role may also snowball into a political controversy, with separatists and civil society groups in Kashmir opposing the court’s ruling on the upgradation of the infrastructure along the route. All eyes are now on a report being submitted by Special High Powered Committee set up by the court to examine the issues facing the yatra.
In its interim ruling, on 13 August, the Apex Court had directed the government to complete the construction of road before the onset of winter. On 20 July, the court had taken suo moto cognisance of the rising toll of mortality through the pilgrimage and set up a committee headed by Jammu and Kashmir Governor NN Vohra to find out what was wrong.
The JK Government, however, is interpreting the court order on the construction of the road, differently. On Sunday 19 August, on the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr, the finance minister Abdur Raheem Rather in a hastily called press conference ruled out any plan to build a road to the holy cave. Significantly, he was flanked by the senior Congress leader and the health minister Sham Lal, to demonstrate that there were no differences on the issue between the coalition partners. Lal compared the reports about the construction of road as part of the “disinformation campaign”.
This has created the a potentially volatile situation for the government. There could be little room for manoeuvre if the Special Committee on the Amarnath yatra suggests the creation of infrastructure along the route. The committee, however, said it has the mandate to give its opinion on seven major areas of concern with the yatra.
One concern is the upgradation of health facilities available to yatris along the route. Second, is the committee has to suggest measures to protect the environment. Third, is the provision of essential amenities for the pilgrims at the base camp. Fourth, a decision has to be taken on the methods being adopted for the collection and the disposal of solid waste. Fifth, what are the facilities and equipments available to treat conditions like shortness of breath, cardiac arrest and the other heart related ailments. Sixth, what are the measures needed to avoid deaths in future pilgrimages. Seventh, the measures planned to regulate the massive rush of the pilgrims.
The separatists have already opposed the construction of infrastructure along the route citing the fragile environment of the high-altitude area. Moderate Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq was the first to oppose the construction of the road to the cave.
“It is unfortunate that when the government fears public backlash on some issues, they use courts to facilitate it for them. I appeal the Supreme Court of India to keep the ecological balance of the area in mind while taking any decision,” Mirwaiz said. He, however, said the people of Kashmir will welcome yatris with their traditional hospitality. “But some people want the temporary road to the cave to be developed as a permanent road and have approached Supreme Court”.
Following Mirwaiz’s statement, the Valley’s civil society groups such as Coalition of Civil Society, Pahalgam Peoples' Welfare Organisation and Centre for Environmental Law in a joint resolution expressed their “serious concern” for the construction of the road. “While we fully share governmental concern to ensure good health and well-being of the pilgrims, we believe that the yatra must be conducted in accordance with the National Environment Policy, the State Forest Policy and also the Nitish Sengupta Committee recommendations,” the resolution read.
“We strongly believe that the principles of conservation for environment and administrative facilitation as applied to the pilgrimage to Gangotri and the larger conservation plans for the Ganga river be applied to the pilgrimage to the Amarnath shrine as was the established practice in the past. Any politicisation of the pilgrimage could be fraught with serious consequences”.
These groups are now seeking help from the environmentalists across the country. “We want to get the environmental groups outside Kashmir to study the impact of the unregulated pilgrim rush on the ecology of the area,” Khurram Parvez, the coordinator of Coalition of Civil Society told TEHELKA.
On the other hand, groups like Vishwa Hindu Parishad are pitching for the creation of the adequate infrastructure along the route. Their view is that the government is succumbing to the pressure from separatists on pilgrimage. Earlier this year, VHP staged protests in Jammu against the curtailment of yatra to 39 days. The party also threatened to launch a nationwide agitation.
Now, when the discourse is building around the provision of concrete infrastructure for the pilgrims along the yatra route, Kashmir stands again precariously poised. Any move to build road or construct permanent structure is likely to lead to a backlash in Valley which in turn may trigger a similar response in Jammu and elsewhere in the country.
Riyaz Wani is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.