After the mass uprising against the allotment of a patch of land to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) by the then PDP-Congress coalition government, the state project to promote the annual Amarnath pilgrimage was overhauled. The brazenness that was on Lt Gen (retd) S K Sinha’s agenda was ostensibly mellowed down by a shrewd Governor, NN Vohra, who is also the ex-officio Chairman of the SASB, at the peak of summer agitation in 2008. A massacre was carried out to quell the uprising that even consumed the coalition government led by Ghulam Nabi Azad. Vohra took over in June 2008 and is now serving the second term. He survived Narendra Modi’s onslaught on governors, probably because he was handling one of the important Indian projects in Kashmir.
One of Vohra’s first interventions in handling the Amarnath issue was to project it as a pilgrimage safe for the fragile environment of Kashmir. He reframed SASB and nominated some prominent environmentalists of India into the panel. The nomination was hyped to the extent that people were made to believe that exponential increase in the pilgrim footfall would not have any bearing on the environment in the Kashmir Himalayas. Simultaneously, the state media continued to run detailed advertisements to attract pilgrims from India, educating and guiding them on all aspects of the yatra. This makes Amarnath pilgrimage a unique religious feature sponsored by the state.
The 2008 uprising against the allotment of land to SASB was not precisely an environmental issue for common Kashmiris. The people came out against the allotment because it generated a sense of insecurity among them. The SASB tried to minimize the impact of the uprising by projecting it as resentment against the environmental degradation that the yatra might have affected. This was only a fragment of the overall issue.
But, on this count as well, the yatra managers have been telling blatant lies. Recent photographs, taken a few days before the pilgrimage began, have sufficiently exposed the SASB claims that on the culmination of yatra every year the tracks are cleared of thousands of tons of trash and non-biodegradable waste dumped by the pilgrims. The pictures show that the waste was lying there and had remained buried under the snow for the entire winter. It shows that safeguarding the fragile environment is of least priority with the SASB and the main concern is to ensure a seamless pilgrimage and project its benign nature in the media. If the SASB cannot put a cap on the number of pilgrims, they should at least be sincere about minimising damage they inflict to our fragile environment every year.