It is estimated that 6 to 8 lakh pilgrims will take part in this year’s Amarnath Yatra. This was disclosed by Secretary to Govt of India Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Apurva Chand last month in a press briefing.
The Home Minister Amit Shah recently chaired a high-level meeting in New Delhi to review the security preparedness of the annual Amarnath Yatra that is all set to commence from June 30 next month.
There is a lot of enthusiasm among the pilgrims who have already registered themselves as this annual pilgrimage (yatra) is taking place after two years hiatus owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The yatra could not be conducted for the last two years due to Covid-19 pandemic. Pertinently in 2019, the Amarnath yatra was cancelled midway due to the security situation just before a week when Article 370 was abrogated.
At a time when such a huge rush of pilgrims is expected around Baltal and Chandanwari routes en route holy cave, is Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) ready to face the challenge on account of managing all kinds of solid & liquid waste?
The Amarnath Shrine
The Shri Amarathji shrine has an iced Shiva lingam located in a cave at an altitude of around 3,882 meters. This holy cave is part of the Amarnath peak, which touches an altitude of 5,188 meters. It is a part of the Himalayan range, located south of the Zojila pass that connects the Kashmir Valley with Ladakh.
There are two routes to reach this shrine. One is via Pahalgam in South Kashmir and the other through Baltal Sonamarg in district Ganderbal on the Srinagar-Ladakh highway.
Kalhana Pandit, the 11th-century Kashmiri historian, wrote in his famous book, Rajatarangini (Book VII v.183), about Krishaanth or Amarnath. The belief is that a queen, Suryamati, gifted the Trishul, banalingas and other sacred items to the Amarnathji shrine in the 11th century.
One Buta Malik, a shepherd of Pahalgam, is believed to have rediscovered the Amarnathji cave more than 150 years back. In 2008, the SASB ended the association of the Malik family with Lord Shiva.
The three parties—the Pandits of Mattan temple, the Mahant, and the Malik family, were offered one-time settlement to make the SASB the sole guardian of the shrine.
“We were offered Rs. 1.5 crore to give away the custodianship. While other two parties took the money, we refused,” Mohammad Afzal Malik had told DNA newspaper, which filed a detailed report on the issue.
The holy cave is in the eastern part of the Kashmir valley. Ever since the annual pilgrimage was extended to a nearly two-month affair (from 2017 onwards), local environmentalists have raised concerns.
Nitesh Sengupta Commission Report
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.
Committees set up by the government have said that the number of yatris needs to be restricted, and polythene use prohibited in and around Pahalgam and en route to the holy cave.
The Sengupta report recommended reducing the number of yatris to the holy cave as well. 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 said not to dump municipal solid waste in forest areas or water bodies, but this waste continues to be dumped enroute yatra routes from Baltal Sonamarg and Chandanwari Pahalgam.
Pilgrims from different parts of the country visit the Amarnath shrine and cave for spiritual reasons. However, they also engage in anti-nature activities by throwing plastic, food and other wastes in the pristine glaciers, mountains and forests. I do not blame only the yatris, but the local visitors, dhaba-walas, and hoteliers are equally responsible for polluting Pahalgam and Sonmarg on the yatra routes.
The sanitation work in Pahalgam and Sonmarg during the yatra must follow the Municipal Solid Waste Rules, 2016. These rules say that waste has to get treated, not lifted from one place to another. Hired volunteers must undertake Information Education and Communication (IEC) activities during the yatra period.
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 (plastic/polythene) should be incinerated or processed into pellets and used as fuel in bitumen and cement plants. 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 and should be considered.
The STP at the Nunwan base camp needs an upgrade. 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, NN Vohra (Chairman of the SASB). He was optimistic about managing waste in the area and banning plastic, but his term ended before the 2019 yatra.
The area needs time to breathe!
I appeal Amarnath yatris (prilgrims) to approach the Amarnath cave and surrounding areas optimistically. Let us not pollute this holy and pristine place.
The Chandanwari glacier has 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.
Contractors hired by the SASB for sanitation work have not been doing their job well in the past. They hardly worked on scientific lines. The sanitation tenders do not follow the MSW Rules 2016. A few years back, my friends and I visited Baltal Sonamarg at the end of October to see how the SASB 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. Will there be some positive change this year ?
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 during that year.
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 in 2011, 6.35 in 2012 and 3.54 in 2013, 3.72 lakh in 2014, 3.52 in 2015, 2.21 in 2016, 2.60 in 2017 and 2.85 in 2018. In 2019, 2020 and 2021 very less number of pilgrims visited the holy cave as explained above.
This season the number will be huge which is a challenging task for the Amarnath Shrine Board. As Prime Minister Modi is seriously focussed on swachata (sanitation, cleanliness), will Shri Amarnath ji Shrine Board (SASB) be able to meet the challenge to manage waste in the area and ensure sanitation (swachhta) when around 8 lakh pilgrims would be visiting the holy cave from June 30th to August 15th this year ? I request LG Manoj Sinha to call a special meeting in this regard soon.
A high level expert committee be constituted to ensure swachh Amarnath yatra this year.
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow. He is Founder & Chairman of J&K RTI Movement and Anant Fellow for Climate Action.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.