Supreme Court Committee to Determine Future of Religious Pilgrimage in Kashmir
SRINAGAR, KASHMIR, INDIA – Lalan Kumar, 28, a resident of Bihar in eastern India, made his pilgrimage to Amarnath, a Himalayan cave and Hindu shrine in Indian-administered Kashmir, in July 2012.
He fasted while completing the treacherous three-day trek up the mountain to visit the shrine with 10 of his co-workers.
“We were very, very tired, and someone told us that all our tiredness would vanish if we would bathe in the ice-cold water,” Kumar says. “We had a bath, and all the tiredness went away.”
His faith made the challenging trek easy, he says. But that isn’t the case for all pilgrims.
“On the first day, eight people died,” Kumar says, “and we also saw another man dead on the second day.”
For the pilgrims who come mainly from hot Indian plains, adapting to the weather and altitude of the Himalayas is difficult, Kumar says. But driven by faith, many trek at a brisk pace for three days despite ailments such as diabetes, obesity or orthopedic problems. The pilgrims also don’t stay to acclimatize themselves before beginning their journey to the cave.
He says the pilgrimage has become crowded and dangerous.
“It is too crowded, especially near the cave,” he says. “I was afraid of being killed in a stampede at the mouth of cave. There were so many people there, women and children too. We were being crushed against one another while waiting for our turn at the cave.”
For many, the pilgrimage also raises environmental concerns.
There are few latrines along the route, Kumar says, so many pilgrims relieve themselves outside. In addition to human waste, pilgrims also leave behind plastic bottles and food wrappers. There is neither a proper system of waste disposal nor restrictions on carrying plastic or other nonbiodegradable items, he says.
Each year, half a million pilgrims make their way through forested mountains, glaciers and riverbanks to Amarnath cave and shrine. Environmentalists say the pilgrimage has become an ecological nightmare for environmentalists. Others acknowledge that it has become a dangerous undertaking for the devout Hindus who make the journey. Political and religious differences also complicate the issues surrounding the Hindu pilgrimage into a primarily Muslim area. After the state hesitated to follow the federal Supreme Court’s direction to build roads to and lodging by the shrine, a Supreme Court committee is reviewing the case and is expected to rule on the future of the pilgrimage this week.
Between June and August, Hindus from all parts of India trek through rugged terrain to catch a glimpse of an ice lingam, a stalagmite ice formation, believed to be a symbol of Lord Shiva. It hangs inside the Amarnath cave approximately 13,000 feet above sea level in the Himalayas of Indian-administered Kashmir.
This year, more than 600,000 pilgrims made the journey, according to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board, an autonomous board headed by the governor of the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir with assistance from the state government. More than 100 pilgrims died, mostly because of health problems.
Once a limited affair involving fewer than 50,000 pilgrims during 15 days, the rush to Amarnath increased during the 1990s. At the end of the decade, the board increased the pilgrimage period to one month. Lt. Gen. S.K. Sinha, former board chairman while governor of Jammu and Kashmir, extended the pilgrimage period to two months in 2004 despite the state government’s safety and environmental concerns.
The government’s decision in 2008 to transfer a large tract of land for building permanent facilities for pilgrims stirred statewide protests in the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley.
After the government rescinded the land transfer order, larger protests broke out in the Hindu-dominated Jammu province to the south.
Khalid Lone is a resident of Pahalgam, one of the base camps for the Amarnath pilgrimage and a major tourist destination in Kashmir. He says the pilgrimage brings some business to locals, who sell food, drinks and cigarettes or work as porters carrying pilgrims on ponies or on palanquins, a seat carried on the shoulders of four or more bearers. But it’s costly to the environment, he says.
“There are people here who think, ‘Hey, we are getting some work to do,’ laborers, pony drivers,” Lone says. “But the whole environment gets polluted. The streams get polluted, with excreta, litter, etc.”
M. Saleem Beg, a former director general of tourism for Jammu and Kashmir, says that the rising number of pilgrims has also caused the ice lingam to melt more quickly because of their body heat.
Shakil Romshoo, a professor of geology at the University of Kashmir known for his studies on the glaciers of the region, declined to comment specifically on the Amarnath issue, as he is a member of the shrine board’s advisory committee. But he ranked the environment as a top concern in the region.
“Not only Pahalgam, Kashmir Valley in itself is ecologically fragile,” he says.
After the casualties at the pilgrimage this year, the Indian Supreme Court intervened and directed the Jammu and Kashmir state government to build roads and lodging for the pilgrims.
But this elicited a joint statement to the government from a group of Kashmiri environmental activists, academics, journalists, trade leaders and tourism experts.
Nadeem Qadri, an environmental activist who signed the joint statement, says that one of the major concerns of activists and residents is the pressure the pilgrimage exerts on the streams. Open defecation, bathing in the streams and littering by pilgrims pollute the main sources of water to a large population downstream.
“There is so much of waste material lying around the route to the shrine,” Qadri says. “So much of solid wastes.”
The joint statement notes that a large population in the Kashmir Valley depends on the drinking water that originates from the glaciers around Amarnath.
A 2006 report by the Jammu and Kashmir State Pollution Control Board noted that the annual pilgrimage was exerting pressure on the fragile ecology of the area, and the waste generated by pilgrims creates risks of waterborne diseases.
Soon after the pilgrimage ended in 2012, local newspapers reported a large number of diarrhea outbreaks in villages in the Ganderbal district, which is near Baltal, another base camp for the pilgrimage.
Although officials of the Jammu and Kashmir State Health Department issued a statement saying it was not an outbreak, they acknowledged that an increase in waterborne diseases was routine during the pilgrimage.
“The historical route to the shrine is via Pahalgam, but now pilgrims also use the Baltal route,” Qadri says. “So not only Lidder, but Jehlum and Sind also get polluted, which then pollute the Wular Lake, which means all the water bodies of Kashmir are being polluted.”
In addition to waterborne diseases suffered by locals during pilgrimage season, pilgrims also suffer health issues, with more than 100 dying this year. The treacherous trek up the mountain takes three days.
The official report compiled by Dr. Manmeet Singh, the doctor in charge of the Jammu and Kashmir Health Services Medical Aid Centre at the cave, and Dr. Yawar Yaseen, also assigned by the board to investigate the deaths, pointed to pulmonary edema – fluid in the lungs – and hypothermia as the major causes of death among pilgrims this year, according to a statement released by the board. High-altitude pulmonary edema can occur during ascent to more than 10,000 feet during a short period.
The report further noted that most of the pilgrims who died were unprepared in terms of proper clothing, and most believed in a dip in freezing water before viewing the ice lingam. They also fast for three days beforehand, which can cause hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar.
Because of deaths last year, the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board issued advisories asking pilgrims to undergo medical checkups and produce a medical fitness certificate before embarking on the trek in 2012.
But Singh found that some younger pilgrims who had died had had medical conditions but had produced fake medical certificates from their hometowns, according to a later report requested by the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board.
Beg says that the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board has been unable to implement its own advisories.
As the number of pilgrims increases every year, the state alos has to dispatch higher numbers of officials from more than a dozen departments to manage them.
The issue drives political and religious controversy about whether to regulate the traffic in the future and, if so, how.
Beg says that the issues concerning Amarnath need to be depoliticized regarding the “yatris” or pilgrims.
“The reason is political, not administrative, where somebody thinks that if I stop a yatri, he might say because it is a Muslim-dominated state and I am not being allowed,” Beg says. “The result, yatris are not safe, the ecology of the area is not safe.”
Beg says that politics and religion will continue to create problems in resolving the issues surrounding the pilgrimage.
“We have intervened in all aspects of the pilgrimage – the ecology, the religiosity, the safety – and we have reached a critical state where all these issues need to be addressed,” Beg says.
Romshoo says it should be resolved soon.
“The government should sooner have the legal framework of assessing the carrying capacity of a place and then regulate the tourist flow, eliminating the politics, communalism and like things,” Romshoo says. “It will apply not only for Pahalgam but every other place in Kashmir.”
In August 2012, Indian Home Minister Sushilkumar Sambhajirao Shinde told the Parliament of India that the government would take steps to upgrade the infrastructure, including widening of roads, in line with the Supreme Court’s order.
But Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Kashmir's chief cleric and the chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an alliance of secessionist parties, says that converting the tracks into a road would lead to an ecological disaster.
On the other hand, conservative Hindu groups, like Bhartiya Janta Party, the main opposition party in New Delhi, says Kashmiri groups oppose improved infrastructure for political reasons. The groups are demanding that the pilgrimage be open year-round with expanded roads and infrastructure.
Realizing the sensitivity of the situation, the state government of Jammu and Kashmir hurriedly convened a press conference in late August 2012. Abdul Rahim Rather, cabinet and finance minister, said the state had no such plans to build a road.
The Supreme Court also created a special high-powered committee to look into the arrangements of the pilgrimage and suggest improvements for the future. The committee has not yet issued its report but an additional hearing is scheduled for October 12.
Sunita Narain, a member of the decision-making Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board and director of the Centre for Science and Environment, a public interest research and advocacy organization based in New Delhi, declined to comment on the issue before the Supreme Court committee finalizes its report.