New Delhi: The Centre is contemplating to start a new helicopter service from Srinagar to Panchtarni, which is the last drop-off point for pilgrims visiting holy cave shrine Amarnath, in addition to the two already existing chopper routes for the pilgrimage, officials said.
The move came in view of the anticipated rush of the pilgrims to the shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva located at an altitude of 3,888 metres in the upper reaches of Himalaya in Jammu and Kashmir.
The pilgrimage is scheduled to begin on June 30 and will continue for 43 days.
As of now, helicopter services are available for the pilgrims from Baltal and Pahalgam to Panchtarni. From this drop-off point, pilgrims either walk or ride a mule or travel in a palanquin to the Amarnath shrine 6 km away. Both Baltal and Pahalgam are about 90 km from Srinagar.
A new helicopter route is being planned this year -- from Budgam (near Srinagar airport) to Panchtarni, an official said.
The Shree Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), which manages the pilgrimage, has also been asked to check if it would be feasible to land the choppers at the foothill of the Amarnath cave.
As of now, only the choppers which ferry high level dignitaries land near the cave.
As per the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) formulated following a direction of the Supreme Court, only 15,000 registered Shri Amarnath Yatra pilgrims are allowed beyond Pehlgam and Baltal in a day -- 7,500 each from Baltal and Pahalgam.
This is excluding pilgrims who travel by helicopters on either route to Panchtarni.
Officials said if more pilgrims take the choppers, the threat from militants would also be reduced considerably.
The pilgrimage, which presents a big security challenge for the government, could not take place in 2020 and 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic and was cut short in 2019 just before the abrogation of Article 370.
About three lakh pilgrims are likely to take part in the pilgrimage, which is expected to end on August 11.
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags will be given to each pilgrim to monitor their movements and security, the officials said. Earlier, RFID tags were given only to the vehicles of the pilgrims.
About 12,000 paramilitary personnel (120 companies), in addition to Jammu and Kashmir Police, are expected to be deployed along the two pilgrimage routes, one from Pahalgam and the other via Baltal, the officials said.
Drone cameras will help the security forces to ensure protection of the pilgrims.
Of late, there has been a spurt in attacks on non-Muslims and migrants living in the Kashmir valley since the abrogation of the Article 370 of the Constitution, which accorded special status to Jammu and Kashmir, in August 2019.