State, Board must protect Vaishno Devi shrine and environment: SC

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court today took note of the problem of pollution in the Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu and the surrounding areas and made it clear that the Jammu and Kashmir government and the shrine board would have to “protect and preserve” both.

A bench of Justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta also asked them to protect the pony and mule owners, who are operating there for a long time ferrying devotees to and from the shrine, and look into issues of their rehabilitation on “humanitarian grounds”.

The bench, after perusing some recent pictures of waste dumped in Banganga river near the shrine, observed that if the photographs were true, then there were lot of problems which needed to be looked into.

“It is very clear that you have to preserve and protect the shrine and protect the environment also. You will also have to protect the mule owners. We do not know whether you are looking at it (issue of rehabilitation) on humanitarian grounds,” the bench observed.

Additional Solicitor General Maninder Singh and advocate Shoeb Alam, appearing for Jammu and Kashmir, said the plan for rehabilitation of pony and mule owners was to go before the sub-committee of the Cabinet, but as of now, there was no government in the state which is under Governor’s Rule.

“The sub-committee was constituted, but before they could look into the issue of rehabilitation, the government fell in the state,” they said.

Singh also told the bench that National Green Tribunal (NGT) was also looking into some of the aspects relating to the shrine and has passed several orders.

The lawyers for Jammu and Kashmir said that since the apex court was seized of the matter, the NGT should not proceed with the case pending there.

The counsel for activist Gauri Maulekhi, who had filed a plea in the NGT seeking removal of horses and mules from the path to the shrine, placed before the bench the recent pictures of Banganga river and said waste was being dumped into the river causing environmental degradation.

“Large amount of dumps are allowed to flow into Banganga, a holy river. There is no improvement in the situation,” the counsel said, adding, “instead of solving the problem, the shrine board is trying to wash off their hands as they are making money”.

The lawyer also referred to ‘Glanders’ disease’ among horses and mules and said it spread to humans also. Glanders is an infection caused by bacterium Burkholderia mallei caused by ingestion of contaminated feed or water. It creates nodular lesions in lungs and ulcers in respiratory tract and the acute cases lead to fever, coughing and septicaemia.

“Fact of the matter is that the pictures, if they are correct, then obviously there are lots of problem and something has to be done about it. There is no point in saying that matters are going on before the Supreme Court, the NGT or other tribunals,” the bench observed.

The bench, while posting the matter for further hearing on August 1, requested the NGT not to proceed with the matter related to the issue pending there.

It also asked the state government to place before it the status of rehabilitation plan for mule and pony owners.

During the hearing, the shrine board told the bench that a new walking track to the shrine has been made operational.

Earlier, the apex court had stayed an NGT order directing the opening of a new pathway to the shrine for pedestrians and battery-operated cars from November 24 last year.

The order had come after the shrine board, which manages the day-to-day affairs as well as pilgrimage to the temple, had said that construction work of the new path was not yet complete.

NGT had earlier also capped the number of visitors to the shrine at 50,000 per day. PTI

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