Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) has, in a right step, canceled this year’s annual Hindu pilgrimage to cave shrine which is situated 13,500 feet above sea level. There are two means to reach the Shrine and none of them are easy to trek. A lot of effort by the government goes in ensuring proper passage, security, medical facilities, setting up of points of stay, lodging, toilets etc besides supplying power and telecommunication facilities at or near the Shrine.
In other words, thousands of government and armed men including civil officials besides Army, CRPF, as well as police personnel are deputed on duties for ensuring the smooth pilgrimage. While the yatra was expected not to be held this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the administration had decided to go ahead with it ignoring the risks involved. The government wanted to undertake the pilgrimage in a restricted manner by following the Standard Operating Procedure for the novel coronavirus. While the adequate stock of drugs and other material were readied to be made available to the doctors and paramedical staff being deployed for the duty, there were serious concerns about the stress in the local medical system given the fact no doctors would have been available from outside J&K for the pilgrimage this year due to the pandamic. There were no isolation facilities if COVID-19 posed the challenges at the Cave and the Base Camp itself. Also, COVID and high altitude sickness symptoms are quite similar and all cases would have to be treated as deemed COVID positive in case of an emergency. Further, special arrangements were to be made for handling dead bodies.
When on the morning of July 5 Lieutenant Governor performed ‘Pratham Aarti’ of the ice stalagmite at the holy shrine, there was some unease in Kashmir as people apprehended that the pilgrimage will lead to a surge in the covid-19 cases. As things stand, the covid-19 cases in J&K are more than 17000 and death toll has mounted to past 300. This has prompted the government to impose a fresh lockdown.
Under these circumstances to allow the pilgrimage to go ahead looked odd and also, in a sense, discriminatory when the same administration had chosen to bar the religious gatherings in Kashmir. Better sense prevailed eventually and the administration has seen through the risks involved.
The pilgrimage provides for a source of livelihood for a large number of people especially to members of the Bakerwal community who provide porterage, pithoo, palki services for the pilgrims as also mules and horses. The SASB and the government need to announce a relief package for them.