Memorandum presented to reconsider Shri Amarnath Shrine Board’s decision for the duration of Shri Amarnath Yatra 2011
‘Safety, security of Yatris among the foremost concerns of Shrine Board’
Jammu, April 20 – A delegation of the Baba Amarnath Avam Baba Buda Amarnath Yatri Niyas headed by its President, Mr. Surinder Mohan Agarwal, presented a Memorandum to Mr. R. K. Goyal, Chief Executive Officer of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, here today at Raj Bhavan. The Memorandum makes an appeal to the Governor, who is also the Chairman of the Shrine Board, for reconsidering the Board’s decision in regard to the duration of this year’s Yatra.
Referring to the Memorandum presented by the delegation, Mr. Goyal said that the decision in regard to the duration and schedule of the Shri Amarnathji Yatra 2011, along both the Chandanwari and Baltal routes, was taken by the Shrine Board after extensive discussions at its meeting held on 18th February 2011 which took into consideration all related factors which are important for ensuring the safe, secure and smooth conduct of this arduous annual pilgrimage to the Holy Cave located at an altitude of 13,500 feet, involving a difficult climbing exercise across high mountain ranges in totally unpredictable weather conditions. Mr. Goyal stated that the Board, chaired by the Governor, is comprised by eminent personalities like Sri Sri Ravi Shanker, who is known all over the world for his Art of Living, Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan who is a well known scholar and perhaps the best known expert in the field of culture, Prof. Ved Kumari Ghai who is an eminent Sanskrit scholar, Pt. Bhajan Sopori who is a renowned musician and Pandit G. D. Sharma, a scholar who is a former Judge of the J&K High Court. It was reiterated that Shri Amarnath Shrine Board is obligated to take into account all relevant considerations to decide the duration and the schedule of the annual Amarnath Yatra 2011 and the safety and security of the Yatris is among the foremost concerns of the Shrine Board.
It may be recalled that till 2001 the Yatra was conducted by the State Government officers and during 1995-2001 the duration of the annual Yatra varied between 19 to 32 days.
It is necessary to recall that during the Yatra 1996, consequent to an unforeseen climatic catastrophe, 243 Yatris lost their lives on the tracks to the Shrine. This incident was enquired into by a High Level Committee. The Nitish Sen Gupta Enquiry Committee Report concluded, inter-alia, that the period of the Yatra should be spread over around 30 days, from roughly 1st July till 15th August, depending on the day when the Raksha-Purnima falls and the previous Purnima. Consequent to the 1996 tragedy and the Nitish Sen Gupta Enquiry, the State Government established the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB), which became operational in 2001 under the Jammu & Kashmir Shri Amarnathji Shrine Act 2000, for the better management of the Shri Amarnathji Yatra, upgradation of facilities and for providing a safe, secure and convenient pilgrimage.
As regards the duration and schedule of the annual Yatra it is necessary to note that the climate pattern and the extent of snow fall during the preceding winter has a direct bearing on the dates by which both the two Shri Amarnath Yatra routes are likely to become operational in the succeeding summer. For example, in 2009 it was initially decided that the Yatra would commence on 7th June, along both the routes. However, because of the slow pace of the snow melt the Pahalgam route could not be opened for pilgrimage till 27th June while the Baltal route could become operational only on 16th June. In 2010, despite vigorous efforts by the Pahalgam Development Authority to carry out snow clearance operations on the Chandanwari-Sheshnag-MG Top-Panjtarni axis, this route could become fit for movement only around 27th June. Past experience has shown that, without placing the pilgrimage in any avoidable risk, both the routes would normally become available by end June/beginning of July.
In the past years, whenever both the routes have not been opened simultaneously, on the same date, many avoidable difficulties have arisen. Past experience has also shown that if the Baltal route is opened even a few days before the Chandanwari route becomes operational, as happened in 2009, serious difficulties may arise, including all the Yatris, even those staying at Pahalgam/Chandanwari, rushing to Baltal, leading to an unmanageable situation which may result in avoidable serious accidents/catastrophies. Law and order situations may also arise, as happened in 2009, when the hoteliers and restaurant owners, taxi operators, tent wallahs, pony and pithu wallahs, and other stakeholders in the Pahalgam–Chandanwari area alleged that the Baltal route had been opened earlier to favour the interests of the people in Sonamarg area, at the cost of the stakeholders in the Pahalgam area.
Another crucial factor which relates to the duration of the Yatra is the setting up of Langars by the various Langar Organisations to support the entire duration of the Yatra. It is to be noted that these Organisations voluntarily provide free food in the Base Camps, at the Shrine, and at various halting points along both the tracks. The Langar Organisations have been repeatedly complaining that they face serious difficulties in supporting the Yatra beyond 30 days. During Yatra 2010, 12 Langar Organisations wound-up and left even without informing the Shrine Board functionaries and 46 of them left two weeks before the conclusion of the Yatra despite being repeatedly requested to stay on till the conclusion of the pilgrimage. The support of the Langar Organisations is a very important factor to facilitate the visiting pilgrims. The Shri Amarnathji Barfani Langar Organisation (SABLO), a body which represents the Langar Organisations, held a Press Conference at Jammu on 7th April in which they stated, interalia, that it was difficult for them to run Langars for extended periods because of the weather and other difficulties.
Another important factor relating to the duration of the Yatra is the trend among the Yatris to complete their pilgrimage within the first 25-30 days of the Yatra period. During 2009, 75% of the pilgrims completed the Yatra within the first 30 days. During the 55 day Yatra in 2010 about 85% of the Yatris had visited the Shrine during the first 30 days i.e. from 1stJuly–31st July 2010, and 96% Yatris had completed the pilgrimage in the first 40 days i.e. from 1st July–9th August 2010.
Past experience has shown that it is not practical to initially fix an early date for the commencement of the Yatra and then alter it one or more times because of bad weather conditions. Such an approach, as happened in 2009, generated large scale complaints from Yatris arriving from Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Bihar who had procured confirmed railway bookings for their return journeys on pre-determined dates and could not get tickets for the revised dates. It is, therefore, necessary for the Yatra schedule to commence on a date which is likely to remain firm, keeping the past weather pattern in view.
It is not out of place to recognise that there are sharply contrary opinions about the ideal duration of the Yatra. Certain socio-religious organisations in Jammu and elsewhere have been questioning the Shrine Board of the basis on which the Yatra is allowed to exceed 30 days. Side by side, issues are also raised about the basis on which the duration of the Yatra can be reduced to less than 60 days. These sharply contrary views regarding the duration of the Yatra have not so far been harmonised.