Will The Shrine Board Ensure Swachh Amarnath Yatra This Summer?

Will The Shrine Board Ensure Swachh Amarnath Yatra This Summer?

AMARNATH Yatra is set to make a comeback after a two year long hiatus. 6 to 8 lakh pilgrims will take part in this year's Amarnath Yatra. The enthusiastic participation of pilgrims this year is because the Yatra is taking place after a break owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2019, the participation was scanty as the government asked pilgrims and tourists to leave Kashmir on 1 August 2019, days before Article 370 was read down. The Jammu and Kashmir government had issued a security advisory citing a “terror threat” in the Valley and asked pilgrims and other tourists to leave the Valley as soon as possible. Nobody knew that New Delhi had other plans.

However, in 2018, more than 7,000 pilgrims would visit the Amarnathji shrine daily and around 2.85 lakh had paid a visit. The yatra was also extended this time and lasted for around two months. 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 year, the Yatra is all set to commence from June 30 - is the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board ready?

Recently, Home Minister Amit Shah chaired a high-level meeting in New Delhi to review the security preparedness. However, a crucial part of the upcoming Yatra is the ecological sensitivity to be taken into account. At a time when such a huge rush of pilgrims is expected around Baltal and Chandanwari routes enroute holy cave, is Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) ready to face the challenge on account of managing all kinds of solid and liquid waste?

Visitors to Chandanwari base camp in Pahalgam, a location enroute the Amarnath Shrine, can testify that one's expectations of a pristine valley are thwarted when one is welcomed by the unwelcome sight of iron gates and ill installed temporary toilets there. These average arrangements often lead to human waste leaking out during the Yatra period. Garbage is also dumped in the open by local shopkeepers, security personnel and Langarwals.

This has been a regular affair for decades. Even when a few hundred people would come for Amarnath Yatra, the place would turn into a mess. This only worsened when the Yatra period was extended to 60 days in 2017. One can only imagine the impending ecological disaster that awaits us, in case, similar insensitivity is shown on account of the incoming rush of pilgrims.

Chandanwari did not have any mechanism for garbage collection, scientific segregation, or treatment for the most part. Some contractors are entrusted with the responsibility to lift mixed (biodegradable and non-biodegradable) waste, which is however thrown into water bodies and forest areas.

Whether the unscientific waste management is being taken care of now, is yet to be seen.

Pertinently, even 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.

In fact, 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.

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 directed that the dumping of municipal solid waste in forest areas or water bodies be stopped. However, this waste continues to be dumped enroute yatra routes from Baltal Sonamarg and Chandanwari Pahalgam.

While pilgrims from different parts of the country visit the Amarnath shrine and cave for spiritual reasons, they also engage in anti-nature activities by throwing plastic, food and other wastes in the pristine glaciers, mountains and forests. It is not just 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 state that waste be treated and not merely 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 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!

Brothers and sisters, especially of the Hindu faith, should approach the Amarnath yatra 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 are not doing their job well. They do not work on scientific lines. The tendering process does 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.

This season the number will be huge which is a challenging task for the Amarnath Shrine Board. As Govt of India particularly PM Modi is seriously focussed on swachata (cleanliness) , will Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) be able to meet the challenge to manage waste in the area and ensure swachhta when around 8 lakh pilgrims would be visiting the holy cave from June 30th to August 15th this year?