The Jammu and Kashmir administration is preparing the ground to host the annual Amarnath pilgrimage by allowing limited number of pilgrims from only one of the two routes to the Himalayan cave shrine this year.
The preparations to open the shrine, situated 3,882 meters high in the Himalayas in south Kashmir, come at a time when experts are warning of the third wave of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic hitting the country by October.
The annual pilgrimage got derailed in last two years – first following revocation of Article 370 in 2019 and then the COVID pandemic hitting the country in 2020.
This year, it is scheduled to begin from 28 June and culminate on 22 August, coinciding with the Hindu festival of Raksha Bandhan.
“I have already said that it is more necessary to save people’s lives. Taking into account the COVID pandemic, we will soon take a decision, maybe by tomorrow,” J&K LG Manoj Sinha told reporters in the national capital on Friday, 18 June.
Accompanied by J&K’s DGP Dilbagh Singh and the Union Territory’s intelligence chief Ashok Swain, Sinha has met with the Union Home Minister Amit Shah and the country’s top brass of security agencies twice this month, on 6 June and 18 June.
According to the reports, security arrangements for the Yatra was one of the key agendas of the first meeting, which was also attended by the Intelligence Bureau chief Arvind Kumar and AK Mehta, the incumbent chief secretary of J&K.
While the official statement about the latest Shah-Sinha meeting in the national capital didn’t mention the Yatra, the J&K government has diverted resources for facilitating the 56-day pilgrimage.
Dr Mushtaq Ahmad Rather, who is the nodal officer for providing medical care to the pilgrims, visited Baltal in Ganderbal district on Friday, to review the facilities for the pilgrims.
The nine km arduous trek from Baltal, which serves as a base camp in central Kashmir, is the shortest among the two routes that have been traditionally used by pilgrims to reach the cave shrine.
Dr Rather said the government has set up multiple health camps and COVID-19 testing centres along the route, according to official statement.
“COVID tests would be done there. Equipment has been made available so that yatris do not face any kind of inconvenience. We are keeping everything ready. We are prepared for the Yatra.”Dr Rather, Director Health Service, Kashmir
“There would be separate COVID ward at a hospital in Sonmarg and a main ward would be created at the Baltal base camp,” Dr Rather said.
Earlier this month, Deputy Commissioner Ganderbal, Krittika Jyotsana, asked the officials to “install good quality toilets in requisite numbers, efficient drainage system…. and proper sanitation” along the Baltal route.
According to a J&K government statement, the DC said there should be “provision for adequate parking facilities with proper lighting.”
On inspection of arrangements at the holy cave and enroute the shrine, the DC stressed upon the officers for putting up all efforts for smooth conduct of Yatra 2021.
Second Route Closed
However, locals and official sources said no arrangements have been made so far along the second route to reach the shrine, from Chandanwari, which is located in the higher reaches of south Kashmir’s Pahalgam health resort.
“There used to be a build-up of troops and various departments such as health, water supply and others would set up camps. But with just ten days to go (for the Yatra), there is no such activity so far,” said a hotelier in Pahalgam.
The Amarnath Shrine board on 1 April opened online registrations for aspiring pilgrims. However, with the second wave of the deadly virus taking massive human and economic toll on the country, the board suspended online registrations on 22 April.
The shrine board, which has been managing the affairs of the cave temple, is headed by J&K’s lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha.
The pilgrimage to the cave shrine was expected to attract more than six lakh devotees this year – a record since 2012, when more than 6.2 lakh pilgrims undertook the arduous trek deep in the mountains.
If everything goes according to plan, this will be the first Yatra after the abrogation of the Article 370, which granted special status to Jammu and Kashmir.
Perils of the Yatra
The J&K administration’s preparations for the pilgrimage have triggered fears that it might become a super spreader event like the Kumbh Mela, which was blamed for catalysing the brutal second wave that killed hundreds of thousands across the country.
“There are genuine concerns about allowing the Yatra when we are yet to emerge from the second wave. The government must address these concerns and perhaps also limit the number of pilgrims to prevent major congregations.”Professor Noor A Baba, political scientist, Srinagar
According to a Reuters poll of health experts and virologists, the third wave of coronavirus infections is likely to hit the country by October. According to the poll findings, though the third wave ‘will be better controlled than the latest outbreak, the pandemic will remain a public health threat for at least another year.’
With the COVID-19 pandemic far from over, there are fears that the Amarnath pilgrimage, which sees devotees jostling for space at the kitchens and the shrine’s sanctum sanctorum, may catalyse the spread of the coronavirus.
Although there is no clarity about the number of pilgrims who would be allowed to proceed to the shrine if the Yatra gets a green signal, a senior government officer in Ganderbal district said the service providers involved in the pilgrimage, such as ponywallahs, community kitchen managers and their employees who serve the pilgrims, and others have been vaccinated.
“This is a preparatory exercise (for the pilgrimage),” the official who didn’t want to be named said, adding that no official announcement has been made so far.
Hakeem Tanveer Ahmad, SDM of Kangan in Ganderbal district, said there was “nothing new” in the vaccination drive. “The vaccination (of the service providers in travel and trade) is a routine exercise,” he added.
The Amarnath Board has also given permission to the Haryana-based Barfani Sewa Mandal (BSM) for setting up a community kitchen to provide free meals to the pilgrims.
What Officials Told Us
The shrine board’s letter to BSM, accessed by The Quint, says: “In view of the recent scenario of COVID-19, all the Langar Organisations are directed to follow all the SOP's related to reducing the risk of exposure to the virus by use of face masks by all sevadars, maintaining proper isolation distances, proper crowd management.”
When contacted, J&K government spokesperson Rohit Kansal refused to comment on the issue.
Additional Chief Executive Officer of Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB), Anup Kumar Soni, said that the decision on conducting the Yatra will be finalised by the board.
“The final decision (on holding the Yatra) has not been taken so far. Once the board decides, we will make an announcement.”Anup Kumar Soni, Additional CEO, SASB
When asked about the preparations being made by the J&K administration, Soni said, “These are being made in anticipation of the pilgrimage. But the final call will be taken by the board.”
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