State Responsibilities and Religious Pilgrimages: Why Eco-concerns must be Paramount?

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M J Aslam

State-interests run supreme:
India is in essence a unitary state where, apart from three basics of defense, communication and foreign affairs, overwhelming items of legislative competence have been constitutionally vested in the central government, albeit a “few” federal features also exist in its constitutional scheme. Despite being a predominantly unitary system, it can’t be lost sight of the fact that State governments or their heads in India have earnestly fought for and effectively guarded against possible transgressions on their respective geographic and environmental rights, whenever any inter-State or Centre-State dispute arose in relation to the same. Any State’s rights are not sacrificed by its head of the government in favour of other State or the Centre at the cost of interests of his own State residents because all State heads owe constitutional-cum-moral obligation towards their own constituencies to protect, inter alia, their atmospheric and eco-stability rights. This is essence of a democratic set up. While this principle is applied in all other States of India, in J & K , such a first and foremost responsibility of State rulers seems missing since long.
Example: Cauvery Water dispute between Karnataka & TN:
We know that for the past 150 years Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are engaged in a dispute over sharing water of Cauvery River that originates from Karnataka. Despite earliest agreements of 1892 and 1924 followed by Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal awards, interventions by the Supreme Court and the Prime Ministers of India several times, the two sides have been circumspectly far-sighted while accepting their awards and orders about distribution of Cauvery water. In 2007, Late Jayalalitha, CM of Tamil Nadu went on a hunger strike if water was not released by Karnataka according to the award of the CWD Tribunal as Karnataka had withheld releasing of the water for “low rainfall” that year. Number of meetings held between the committees of the two States took place but each time each State has put the interests of its own people first and foremost; with the result, no meeting could bear any fruit. Neither of the two States is willing to sacrifice the interests of its own people. Now recently, the Supreme Court 1) has ordered tentative monthly release of water of Cauvery River by Karnataka to Tamil Nadu plus State of Kerala and Puduchury. The dispute seems to have been settled vide the said order but what is emphasised here is that for 150 years these two major stakeholders of Cauvery Water fought each other, legally, politically, administratively and otherwise, over what is backbone for very survival of both the States, their people, farming, agriculture and hydroelectric dams.
Second example: Pollution of Ganga, environmental concerns and State action:
That said, we have then example of most sacred river of Hindus called Ganges or Ganga. Several Environmental Movements operate in India to save the Ganges from pollution. Some of the main organisations working to save this lifeline of 11 States are : Save Ganga Movement, Ganga Seva Abhiyan and Ganga Calling. These are peoples’ Movements aimed at saving and protecting the Ganga from destruction by man-made pollution. The Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action also supports these peoples’ initiatives to raise awareness among masses about importance and existence of Ganges for 40% Indian population for their living and dependence, while for the entire Hindu population of India for its cultural and religious significance and age old heritage. Socio-environmental activists and even Hindu religious Gurus have joined these Movements. Narendra Modi has launched mega cleaning project of Ganges. Due to the pressure mounted by these Movements fully supported by the respective State governments construction of future dams and industry alongside the river Ganga was promised to be halted by Manmohan Singh government and the position continues to be the same till now. All this shows that whenever and wherever there are environmental concerns and dangers, the State is bound to act to prevent catastrophe.
The Loharinag Pala dam, just 70 km from Gangotri was halted in March 2009, after the former dean of IIT and noted India environmental activist, G. D. Agarwal, launched a campaign against the construction of the project. On September 2, 2010, under pressure from social, environmental and religious groups, including Anna Hazarre and LK Advani, the Government of India officially cancelled the dam. This was the third such cancellation. The government has officially declared 135 Kms stretch from Gangotri to Uttarkashi as “sensitive” under the Environmental Protection Act, 1986.
Pilgrimage to Gangotri-Gurmukh and State regulations for environment concerns:
The source of Ganga is Gangotri , which itself is created by Gurmukh-glacier , 19 kms away from Gangotri temple. The Gangotri which is source of Ganga and a very sacred place of pilgrimage for Hindus during May-November, while in winter Gangotri and Gurmukh temples remain closed down due to hard weather conditions. Gangotri is the centre for tourists and devotees who put a lot of strain on the natural ecosystem in these forest areas of Uttarakhand. It was generally seen that the visitors had been littering these forest areas besides the hills and glaciers being also sensitive to human rush. To protect these forest areas and keep them clean, and to protect the ecosystem of the mountains, voices were raised and it was forcefully demanded that visiting these sacred Hindu places should not be easily accessible since greater number of people visiting these areas was only aiding in increasing levels of pollution and endangering their eco-balance. Ultimately, 18 kms stretch from Gangogtri to Gurmukh was declared eco-sensitive zone and “with alarm bells ringing over the rapid melting of glaciers in the Himalayas, the Uttarakhand Government decided to regulate tourist flow to the protected areas of Gangotri National Park, including Gurmukh and restrict the number of tourists visiting the origin of the holy river Ganga to only 150 per day”. Before this decision was taken by the Uttarakhand Government, it may be noted that, on a single day nearly 2,000 to 3,000 devotees had been visiting the area that caused concerns about eco-stability. The entry of mules and horses was also banned in Gangotri area by the State of Uttarakhand. To discourage tourists from visiting Gangotri regularly, the entry fee was also hiked. 2) The alarming retreat of the glaciers in the Himalayan range of mountains due to too much of human interference which includes religious pilgrimages too is the most serious ecological concern. 3)
Amarnath Yatra : A Brief history:
In the North East of Kashmir, some 141 kms away from Srinagar, amongst glacial mountains , at an altitude of 3888 meters or 13,500 ft , is a cave in which ice stalagmite is formed during summer which according to Hindu mythology is the Shiv Lingam, emblem of the Shiva. The cave remains blocked for almost entire year except during Shravan (between 15 July- 15 August) when it is open to Hindu pilgrims for having darshana of Shiv-Lingam. It is believed that the ice stalagmite, which is thought to be waxing and waning in accordance with the cycles or phases of moon, is an embodiment of the Shiv-Lingam, 4) the phallic representation of Shiva himself. Legend has it that it was here where Shiva revealed secrets of immortality and creation of the universe to his life consort Parvathi Ji without being heard by any other living being. Without going into mutual uncertainty among Hindus scholars themselves whether it was “re-discovered” 5) or “first discovered” 6) , it is historically correct, as against recent claims, that Amarnath Yatra was first time “officially patronized” in Kashmir by Gulab Singh, Hindu ruler, 7) immediately after he bought Kashmir from British for 7.5 million rupees vide Treaty of Amritsar of 1846. 8)
Since then, the Amarnath Yatra was being annually conducted under official bundobast of the State Government. Small groups of few thousand local Pandits, some Hindus or Sadhus from other parts of India under the State arrangements would join the Yatra for a brief period of 15 days during July-August every year. Yatra used to be small can be well gauged from the fact that “one Tehsildar , one Magistrate , one medical officer and a band of policemen were deputed” to take charge of the whole pilgrimage, despite “the toll of mortality was appalling whenever inclement weather prevailed”. 9) Factually, the Yatra would always start from Akhara Building Budshah Chowk Srinagar where Sadhus and Hindus from different parts of India would assemble few days before commencement of the pilgrimage. In this religious sojourn, Kashmiri Pandits would always join the Yatra procession at Mach Bawan, Mattan of Islamabad/Anatnag district of South Kashmir.
It may be noted that the chadawa or offerings at Amarnath cave shrine were distributed between three parties, namely, Mahant of Srinagar’s Dashnami Akhara , Purohits (Pandits) of Mattan Murtand Temple and Maliks of Batakote; the Maliks as the descendants of the Butta Malik who is historically credited with having discovered the Amarnath cave. 10)
Legislation and its consequences:
In 1996 due to unexpected snowfall and drastic change of weather, some 243 Yatris lost their lives. Dr Nitesh K Sengupta Committee was set up by the State Government to probe the deaths. The Committee recommended constitution of the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB). Accepting the recommendations of the Committee, Farooq Abdullah government passed the J&K Shri Amarnathji Shrine Act, 2000 which came into effect on 12th February, 2001. There were three immediate effects of this legislation:
First, it took away 150 years plus authority of the State government (due to its own said legislative measure) to manage the Amarnath Yatra;
Second, henceforth, the task to conduct the Yatra was given to what under the Act is called Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB). SASB has ten members with governor as the chairman (provided he is a Hindu) with two members from local Pandits whileas overwhelming membership of SASB (8 members out of 10) has been vested in non-local-Hindu- members by the Act. Unlike Uttarakhand, where State government itself manages and regulates Gangotri-Gurmukh Yatras, in JK regulation of Amarnath cave shrine yatra has been vested in SASB;
Third, centuries old offerings to three parties mentioned above came to an end. In the aftermath of these legislative changes, lakhs of Yatris all over India were mobilized to visit Amarnath Cave. 11) It is yesterday’s talk. We have been witness to it from our childhood days. So, what used to be a small but excellent religious pilgrimage of few thousand local Pandits & some non-local Sadhus and Hindus who used to assemble in Akhara building Lal Chowk, Srinagar before start of the Yatra, for setting on it under the State arrangements for 150 years, became a mega event of pilgrimage to the cave shrine, in the recent years.
Environmental risks:
Man Mohan Munshi 12) admittedly writes that “in recent years the number of pilgrims has increased from few thousand to about six lacks per annum”. 13) However, he is brushing aside concerns of all scientists and environmentalists that hugely increased number of pilgrims is alarmingly disturbing the eco-system of this area. He says that Amarnath cave is not surrounded by glaciers but by “snow bridges or snow accumulations” which, in his view, are confused by “vested interests” with the glaciers. 14) But National Geographic and Reuters India in their reports based on established research data including that of highly reliable Indian body of scientists, at New Delhi, The Energy and Resources Institute/ TERI, shows that Kolahoi , the biggest glacier of Kashmir near the Amarnath Cave shrine, has lost between 15 to 18% of its total volume. The research also shows that the glacier is retreating by almost ten feet (three meters) a year. 15)
Following Amarnath land transfer agitation of 2008 and establishment of the SASB, Yatra is now spanned over 40-45 days in comparison to earlier 15 days duration and now people in lakhs all over India are now mobilized for this religious Yatra. In 2015, as per official reports, 3, 52,771 pilgrims, in 2016, 2,20,490 pilgrims while in 2017 , 2,60,003 pilgrims visited the cave shrine. 16) It means, on an average, during 2015-2017, considering total Yatra-days at 40 only, number of pilgrims who had darshana of Shiva-Lingam inside cave shrine during 2015 to 2017 was , respectively, 8819, 5512 & 6500, per day. Now, compare it with 150 Yatris visiting Gongotri Temple in Uttarakhand per day during pilgrimage season each year. As noted above, number of pilgrims was reduced by the Uttrakhand Government from 3000 per day to 150 pilgrims a day. This was done to ensure that no imbalances were caused to the fragile eco-system of forests there. Now, if ecology of Uttrakhand where Gangotri and Gurmukh , two highly sacred places of Hindu pilgrimage, cannot be compromised for religious purposes, then, how come, inverse of the ecosystem stability of the Lidder and Sind valleys in State of J&K will be permitted by man-made interference of lakhs of pilgrims marching simultaneously in these most fragile eco-sensitive areas of nature?
Environmental stress offers the strongest basis for building consensus on the regulation of the yatra. For pilgrims too, “the sanctity is often compromised by increased numbers of visitors, and the resultant degradation of the physical environment…….A smaller, cleaner, more manageable Amarnath yatra would be in everyone’s interest – the pilgrims’ above all”. 17)

1) Vide its order dated 16-02-2018 in State of Karnataka v. State of Tamil Nadu (civil appeal No.2456 of 2007);
2) The Hindu dated 31-03-2008; “Uttarakhand to restrict tourist flow to Gangotri glacier); Outlook dated 30-03-2008 “Uttarakhand to regulate traffic to Gangotri glaciers”: Studies showed that the glaciers in those areas were receding, melting, at a rapid speed of 17 to 23 metres per year; Uttarakhand must not compromise on its fragile ecology, says Union Environment Minister, The Hindu 20-06-2013;
3) Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies , South Asia, the Fragile Himalayan Ecology, by Col P K Gautum, , dated 19-09-2001;
4) The Valley of Kashmir, (1895) Sir W P Lawrence, page 265;
5) Bansi Pandit, Explore Kashmiri Pandits (Dharma Publications, 2008) page 74;
6) Swami Vivekananda said to his disciples” “I can imagine how this cave was “first discovered”. A party of shepherds, one summer day, must have lost their flocks and wandered in here in search of them when they unexpectedly….. and suddenly came upon Mahadeva”, The Life of Swami Vivekananda (6th edition, Calcutta 1960, Eastern & Western disciples, pages 592-593;
7) Mridu Rai , Hindu Rulers, Muslim Subjects: Islam, Rights, and the History of Kashmir(2004) pages 101, 246 (Gulab Singh emphasised his standing as a Hindu ruler inter alia by performing pilgrimage to sacred site of Amaranth and in 1917 Pratap Singh, much to the disappointment of local Pandits, granted substantial land for construction of permanent office in Maisuma , Srinagar (Akhara Building wherefrom Yatra used to commence till very recent years) to Hindu Sahayak Sabha of Punjab for accommodating Amarnath Yatris); Pandit Anand Koul’s Geography of Jammu & Kashmir State (1925-Second edition), page 114 (The State has been issuing rations…..since the time of Mahddja Gulab Singh….for performing the pilgrimage);
8) For further details see Amaranth Yatra: Militarized Pilgrimage, March 2017 , prepared by Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) & Equations of Bangalore ;
9) Pandit Anand Koul’s Geography of Jammu & Kashmir State (1925-Second edition), page 115;
10) The Valley of Kashmir, (1895) Sir W P Lawrence, page 298; Kashmir Life, 11-07-2011;
11) On the Amarnath Yatra, Faith and State Go Hand-in-Hand, by Raghu Karnad, published in The Wire on 23-04-2017 republished on 11-07-2017;
12) Writer at Kashmiri Pandit Network;
13) IBTL dated 12-09-2012;
14) Ibid;
15) a) “Goddess” Glacier Melting in War-Torn Kashmir; b) Massive Hindu Pilgrimage Melting Sacred Glacier; c) Kashmir’s main glacier “melting at alarming speed”;
16) The Times of India dated 17-01-2018;
17) On the Amarnath Yatra, Faith and State Go Hand-in-Hand, by Raghu Karnad, published in The Wire on 23-04-2017 republished on 11-07-2017:

—The author, an academic, storyteller and columnist is presently working as AVP, JKB. He can be reached at: