AMARNATH Yatra is set to make a comeback after a two year long hiatus. 6 to 8 lakh pilgrims will take part in this year’s pilgrimage. The enthusiastic participation of pilgrims this year is because the Yatra is taking place after a break owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2019, the participation was scanty as the government asked pilgrims and tourists to leave Kashmir on 1 August 2019, days before Article 370 was read down. The Jammu and Kashmir government had issued a security advisory citing a “terror threat” in the Valley and asked pilgrims and other tourists to leave the Valley as soon as possible. Nobody knew that New Delhi had other plans.
However, in 2018, more than 7,000 pilgrims would visit the Amarnath shrine daily and around 2.85 lakh had paid a visit. The yatra was also extended this time and lasted for around two months. Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) took control of the yatra from 2001. The number of pilgrims who visited the holy cave in 2001 were 1.91 lakh. This was followed by 1.10 lakh in 2002, 1.70 lakh in 2003, four lakh in 2004, 3.88 lakh in 2005, 3.47 lakh in 2006, 2.96 lakh in 2007, 5.33 lakh in 2008, 3.81 lakh in 2009, 4.55 lakh in 2010, 6.21 lakh in 2011, 6.35 lakh in 2012, 3.54 lakh in 2013, 3.72 lakh in 2014, 3.52 lakh in 2015, 2.21 lakh in 2016, 2.60 lakh in 2017 and 2.85 lakh in 2018. And now, as yet another yatra is around the corner, the preparation part remains crucial.
Recently, Home Minister Amit Shah chaired a high-level meeting in New Delhi to review the security preparedness. However, a significant part of the upcoming Yatra is the ecological sensitivity to be taken into account. At a time when such a huge rush of pilgrims is expected around Baltal and Chandanwari routes enroute holy cave, is Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) ready to face the challenge on account of managing all kinds of solid and liquid waste?
For two months each year, between July and August, an average of half-a-million devotees take part in the Amarnath Yatra. The cave is approachable through two different routes – via the 46 kilometre Pahalgam route in south Kashmir and 14 kilometre Baltal route in north-eastern Kashmir.
The shrine falls at the far end of Lidder Valley in an area where several small and large glaciers such as Nehnar, Kolhai and Bodpathri are concentrated. The mountain range overlooking Lidder valley and Sonamarg is an important source of water for the major tributary to the Jhelum river, the Lidder, with the majority of Kashmir’s glaciers concentrated in this range.
Global warming is already taking a toll on these glaciers and human activities on a large scale in this sensitive ecology can further precipitate the melting of these glaciers, experts warn. In fact, the number of visitors to the Amarnath Cave has far exceeded the carrying capacity of the area during the first half of the pilgrimage every year for more than a decade.
In past, the Supreme Court had described Pahalgam as “a very sensitive place from the environmental point of view” and had directed its members to look into the environmental issues. But even then, a large amount of waste disposed off by the side of the trail endangers the fragile ecosystem. This environmental concern is also shared by pilgrims, distressed with the casual dumping of plastic bags and waste along the route.
However, in absence of proper regulation, some pilgrims were spotted easing themselves on the riverbanks during the past yatras. Mostly unregistered pilgrims, not allowed to put up at the base camps, were seen halting vehicles on the river banks and defecating and urinating in the river. For several years now, people started falling sick during the yatra period. After an awareness campaign, most people in Pahalgam town and villages around stopped using the water for consumption or cooking.
Another source of pollution are the littered carcasses of mules who die while taking pilgrims to the cave through treacherous tracks. The Amarnath cave is 13,000 feet high and pilgrims trek 30 km from Chandanwari camp, where motorable road ends, either by mules or palanquin.
During the 2016 annual yatra, I visited the Chandanwari base camp in Pahalgam with some environmentally-conscious friends. It was the end of June and the yatra was going to take off in a few days. I was under the impression that Chandanwari would be a pristine valley surrounded by snow-capped peaks, green pines, and vast meadows. But when we entered Chandanwari through a huge iron gate, I was terrified by the condition of the area. Temporary toilets had been improperly installed. All the human waste would have leaked during the yatra period. This has been a regular affair for decades.
Garbage was being dumped in the open by local shopkeepers, security personnel and Langarwals. It is pertinent to mention that only a few hundred people were in the area during my visit. So, one can only imagine the environmental impact on the area when more than 7,000 people began to arrive and camp in this tiny area for 45 days. It is hard to imagine the terrible conditions and their environmental impact once the yatra period was extended to 60 days in 2017.
Chandanwari did not have any mechanism for garbage collection, scientific segregation, or treatment. We were told some contractor was given the job of lifting mixed (biodegradable and non-biodegradable) waste, which is then thrown in water bodies and forest areas. We saw heaps of garbage, PET bottles, and polythene near the banks of the Lidder river which flows through Chandanwari. The unscientific waste management continued even after 2016, including in 2020, in the Baltal and Chandanwari areas. This eco-assault in past had triggered a perilous situation for pilgrims.
In 1996, more than 200 Amarnath pilgrims died due to harsh weather conditions. The government constituted a commission of inquiry after that disaster. Headed by Nitesh Sengupta, a 1957-batch IAS officer, it recommended steps for a safe yatra and to protect the environment and ecology. The area is severely threatened during the pilgrimage when, suddenly, massive numbers of pilgrims arrive, the fact-finding revealed.
The Sengupta report recommended reducing the number of yatris to the holy cave as well. A decade later, in 2006, the Jammu and Kashmir State Pollution Control Board also prepared a 37-page report with 25 recommendations. Citing the Municipal Solid Waste Rules, it directed that the dumping of municipal solid waste in forest areas or water bodies be stopped. However, this waste continues to be dumped enroute yatra routes from Baltal Sonamarg and Chandanwari Pahalgam.
“While pilgrims from different parts of the country visit the Amarnath shrine and cave for spiritual reasons, they also engage in anti-nature activities by throwing plastic, food and other wastes in the pristine glaciers, mountains and forests,” says Riyaz Ahmad, a local hotelier in Sonamarg. “The local visitors, dhaba-walas, and hoteliers are equally responsible for polluting Pahalgam and Sonmarg on the yatra routes.”
Experts suggest that the sanitation work in Pahalgam and Sonamarg during the yatra must follow the Municipal Solid Waste Rules, 2016. These rules state that waste be treated and not merely lifted from one place to another. “Hired volunteers must undertake Information Education and Communication (IEC) activities during the yatra period,” Ahmad said. “But as the government has almost failed to evolve an eco-friendly mechanism of the yatra, young Kashmiri boys often visit the yatra routes after the pilgrimage and carry the cleanliness drives. This community spirit should have been rewarded and awarded for the lager environmental sensitivity, but alas, the absence of will is too conspicuous.”
Now, as Kashmir is bracing up for the massive pilgrim footfall this summer, the shrine custodians have come under the sharp scrutiny. Apart from making efforts to secure the Himalayan pilgrimage, they’re expected to resort to eco-friendly methods. “The shrine board can make a big difference given how the massive devotees are heading towards the eco-fragile zone which in the recent past witnessed a climatic calamity,” says Zubair Rashid, a Srinagar-based environmentalist. “They need to make everyone accountable for their actions and set the scientific guidelines. For example, each langar must use two bins to segregate the waste generated in langars as biodegradable and non-biodegradable. The automatic waste-composting machines should be available near the dhabas. Biodegradable waste generated at three places—Nunwan, Chandanwari in Pahalgam and Baltal in Sonmarg—should be treated in auto-composters and used as organic fertilizer.”
Non-biodegradable waste, such as plastic/polythene, should be incinerated or processed into pellets and used as fuel in bitumen and cement plants, Rashid said. “Small Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) and bio-toilets are also needed to treat human waste regularly. Many other technologies are available to treat liquid waste should be considered. Polythene and PET bottles should be completely banned and biodegradable plates and glasses made of banana or other plant leaves should be introduced in the langars.”
In 2018, this author and like-minded environmental activists made a presentation before the then Governor and Chairman of the shrine board, NN Vohra. He was optimistic about managing waste in the area and banning plastic, but his term ended before the 2019 yatra and the resolve got lost in the din of new political realities of the valley.
“The truth is,” Rashid said, “the area needs time to breathe. The Chandanwari glacier has already turned black due to air pollution from diesel gen-sets used in the base camp and on account of carbon footprints. Not just pilgrims, hundreds of pony-walas, security personnel and their movements also pollute the environment.”
The grim ground reality makes it clear that contractors hired by the shrine board are not doing their job well. They do not work on scientific lines. The tendering process does not follow the MSW Rules 2016. A few years back, I visited Baltal Sonamarg at the end of October to see how the contractors managed waste. I found tons of plastic waste scattered. A team of two dozen volunteers from Srinagar collected at least 200 metric tons of plastic waste at a designated place, which were then packed in sacks and transported to the Srinagar landfill site.
This season the number will be huge which is a challenging task for the shrine board. But as Govt of India particularly PM Modi is seriously focussed on swachata, will the shrine board be able to meet the challenge to manage waste in the area and ensure cleanliness when around 8 lakh pilgrims would be visiting the holy cave from June 30th to August 15th this year?
- Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer
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