If Jammu can’t live without Vaishno Devi, can Kashmir without Amarnath?

Syed Junaid Hashmi

 The Economics

We are all very familiar with the numbers, and the seemingly unstoppable manner in which the Vaishno Devi Yatra has been growing year after year. Starting from a lowly base of 13-14 lakhs in 1986, when this shrine was taken over by  Jagmohan, the then Governor, in quite a bloodless coup, the numbers have already exceeded 80 lakhs, forcing SMVDSB to plan for Yatra of 1 crore by 2020.

The overall economic impact of such a gigantic number should no doubt be quite mind-numbing.  A three year project led by Dr. S.K. Jain, Professor of the Dept. of Management, IIT Delhi, in fact, did try to put some numbers to the economic impact of this pilgrimage on hotels, lodges, eateries, pony, palki, and Pithoo wallahs, souvenir and dry fruit shops, bus, auto and taxi owners and came to the conclusion that in Katra town alone, the Yatra would be pumping Rs. 470 crores annually!

\This excludes the direct income of Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board (SMVDSB) by way of offerings and donations, royalty, rents, interests and dividends, and the indirect income by way of sales at the Board’s eateries, Prasad and souvenir outlets. We can very easily add another Rs. 300 crores on this account, which means that the “pilgrim tourists” are injecting more than Rs. 750 crores into Katra’s economy. There is no reason why anyone should doubt these figures, since this means a modest contribution of less than Rs. 1000 per pilgrim per year.

Considering the fact that most pilgrims don’t even need to halt for a night at Vaishno Devi, the comparative figures for Amarnath where the minimum halt in the Kashmir Valley would range from three nights on the Baltal route to six nights on the Chandanwari route, should touch at least Rs. 3,000 per head. This means that the four lakh yatris that currently undertake the Amarnath Yatra every year would already be contributing Rs. 120 crores to Kashmir’s economy.

And supposing we had similar numbers as in Vaishno Devi going up to Amarnath, which is not possible at the moment, the figures could reach a stupendous Rs. 2400 crores, which may be higher than the total revenue earned or the “actual” expenditure incurred annually under the entire state plan of J&K.

So this could be the ultimate economic potential for the Amarnath Yatra.

Even half of this potential, if allowed to be realized, could impact the lives of all those associated with the yatra in the Pahalgam-Sonemarg region in a manner hitherto unimagined. Skeptics may scoff at this analysis by arguing that many yatris, including some ill-clad sadhus, who survive on free food from langars, cannot be expected to contribute Rs. 3,000 per head. However, such a small percentage of poor yatris undertakes the Vaishno Devi pilgrimage as well.

If we just compare the highest paying segment of helicopter-borne pilgrims for Amarnath with the same segment in Vaishno Devi and ask the operators who run the facilities at both places, we would be told in absolutely unambiguous terms that it is the Amarnath sector that beats the Vaishno Devi sector hollow in terms of intensity of operations and obviously profitability. In Vaishno Devi only two helicopters operate from dawn to dusk vis-ą-vis as many as six in the Amarnath sector!

In the two months of 2007, when the helicopters in Amarnath could fly for hardly fifty days, and when the holy ice-lingam had melted completely on the very first day of the yatra, the value of tickets sold was Rs. 15 crores. The figures over the same period of operation in Vaishno Devi would be hardly around Rs. 10 crores. This means that the pilgrimage to Amarnath has at least in economic terms the potential to surpass the Vaishno Devi pilgrimage.

Scenery wise too, pilgrims who have visited both shrines hold Amarnath in greater awe because of the breathtaking vistas that they have to pass through along rugged mountains, high altitude lakes and gurgling streams. Even the Holy Cave, that they come across at the end of their treks at both shrines, is grander and more breathtaking at Amarnath. Also at Amarnath, rush or no rush, there is no way that anyone can not but be charmed by the shimmer of the 12 ft high Holy Icelingam whereas in Vaishno Devi, many first-timers totally miss seeing the Holy pindies. Pilgrims who have been to Kedarnath (Uttarakhand), where also a 14 km trek from the nearest road head or a 7-minute helicopter ride is involved, also find Amarnath matchless.

The Inhibiting Factors:

Yet we have to reach the sad but inevitable conclusion that the yatra for Shri Amarnathji can never ever come close to the Vaishno Devi yatra. This is so for the following main reasons:

The terrain and weather:

There is no doubt that the terrain at Amarnath is much more rugged than at Vaishno Devi. The Shrine is also at more than double the altitude at 13, 500 feet versus 5, 200 feet at Vaishno Devi. This causes more breathing problems and leads to almost one death a day at Amaranth compared to one a month at Vaishno Devi. The traditional route to Amarnath via Chandanwari takes five days compared to just one for Vaishno Devi. The weather too at Amarnath remains more hostile with minus zero temperatures prevailing for more than six months in a year.

Technology, however, can make mince meat of such challenges. A tunnel at Gund, already being planned by the BRO, can make Sonemarg accessible round the year. After that, we don’t need to even look at the European Alps, where almost every peak with a good skiing potential has been conquered through ropeways and even trains that operate round the year. In Kashmir itself, the Gulmarg Gondola project connects Apharwat at 16, 000 feet. So, there is no technical reason as to why a similar ropeway project can’t make Amarnath accessible round the year. A Feasibility Report stands already made by RITES, the same agency that made the reports for the Gulmarg project, but for obvious reasons the J&K Tourism Dept., that is the nodal authority for clearing all ropeway projects in the state, has been refusing to clear this project for the last seven years.

The religious angle:

Many Hindu religious bodies keep on arguing against any extension in the duration of the Amarnath yatra claiming that the holiest day for the yatra is only Shravan Purnima or the Raksha Bandhan day. Many of us who would have seen thousands of Kanwariyas carrying water from Haridwar in Uttarakhand or Deogarh in Bihar would readily agree that the rainy month of Shravan is indeed considered the holiest period for undertaking any pilgrimage in the honour of Lord Shiva.

However, for the devout Shaivite, Shivratri which falls in February-March remains an even more important day. Obviously a visit to Amarnath in Feb-March is impossible. But supposing a ropeway or a helicopter could make such a visit possible, would the pandits still say that visiting the shrine on Shivratri will constitute an irreligious act? Everyone knows the religious significance of Haj pilgrimage for devout muslims which can be performed only over a certain fixed period after Ramzan. But is anyone stopped if he or she wishes to go to Mecca in a non-Haj period and do Umrah?

For Vaishno Devi too, as older devotees can readily recall, the only period when arrangements for pilgrims used to be made by the State Government during the days of the Maharaja were the two Navratras in Spring (March-April) and Autumn (October-November). Even today, these two Navratras are considered most auspicious. However, pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi today continues 24 X 7, 365 days a year. Technology naturally has played a big role in making such round-the-clock darshans possible.

The capacity of the original cave at Vaishno Devi, which entailed crawling on all fours, was limited to two thousand only per day. Till the 70s, therefore, only twenty-five could enter the cave at one time and the next batch of twenty-five had to wait till the earlier group came back the same way. Use of modern technology enabled construction of an “exit tunnel” by the Dharmarth trust which increased the daily Darshan capacity five fold to almost ten thousand. Construction of another tunnel facilitated by the Shrine Board increased this through put to almost twenty thousand.

And now a third tunnel that has been successfully commissioned in 2009, thanks to the bold vision shown by General Sinha in 2007, has doubled the capacity to almost forty thousand per day or over one crore a year. In case of Amarnath, however, many ill-advised Hindus as well as “enlightened” Muslims have got together to declare that yatra beyond a week or at the most thirty days is irreligious. It is in India only where we can see such a secular ganging up of forces!

The environmental factor

The pilgrimage to Amarnath is considered more detrimental for the environment than the one for Vaishno Devi. This is so because the track, from the Baltal side especially, is claimed to be going through the Thajwas wildlife sanctuary. This has proven to be a lie, but even if the allegations were true, it should have resulted in an immediate ban on the entry of all vehicular traffic to the Thajwas glacier as well as of mules, sheep and human beings who go in hundreds to enjoy the beauty of this glacier. But this is not happening.

In fact, the wildlife department has even erected a barrier on the road leading up to the glacier but what they do at the checkpost is best left to our imagination. So, again it is a case of double standards—don’t allow pilgrims in the Thajwas wildlife sanctuary but don’t stop “tourists”. And, the environmentalists of the Valley are aghast if told that both pilgrims and tourists in this case are the same Hindus; so if you stop pilgrims, you effectively reduce the number of tourists too.

In any case a ropeway project, if allowed to come up in the Amarnath sector, would solve most of the pollution problems caused by hundreds of mules and horses going up on the track. It will also enable pilgrims to ‘fly over’ the occasional wildlife that may like to cross the current trekking route during the daytime. Next, of course, is the problem of making sanitation arrangements for the thousands of pilgrims and pony-pithoo walas.

The Amarnath Shrine Board has already shown the way by totally eliminating the use of foul smelling DTLs (Deep Trench Latrines) that the State Govt. agencies were earlier so fond of putting up on this track. Instead they have installed more than two thousand pre-fabricated toilets all over the route which by using an innovative technology convert all the sewage into manure without letting it contaminate any water body.

If anything, this experiment needs to be copied by every civic authority in J& K who should hang their head in shame for not even constructing and maintaining even two hundred public toilets in the entire state. The third problem relates to the pernicious use of plastics. Again, we need to look at the source of the problem which is first, the manufacturers of such bags in this State, and next the shopkeepers who use these bags to sell their goods. To nip this problem in the bud, therefore, we need to target both manufacturers and shopkeepers to make them switch to non-plastic alternatives.

Till that is done, blaming only pilgrims for using plastics would be barking up the wrong tree. The greed of Government agencies: It may shock many but one of the most strident voices against the functioning of a strong SASB is the plethora of Govt. agencies that involves itself in the “management” of the Amarnath yatra in the name of state-sponsored secularism. For example, the Food & Supplies Dept claims to be spending lakhs on transporting ration and cooking gas cylinders to various halting camps on the Amarnath route.

But if you ask them as to the necessity for this exercise when more than 100 langars offer free hot meals to the pilgrims and when all of these langars carry the required ration from their own places of origin, the officers start looking here & there for an answer. The Forest Dept similarly transports and stores tonnes of fire wood at the cost of the Dept. when again any one needing firewood for cooking, space heating or cremation readily pays for that.

The Health Dept doesn’t provide free medicines in the Govt. hospitals in the Valley but at the Amarnath halting camps, it does that with gay abandon. Naturally, most of the medicines “consumed” by the poor pilgrims land up in the bazaars of Srinagar. The Roads and Building Dept. “clears” snows from the Chandanwari track and charges the Govt. a few crores for the favour, when actually they just wait for the snows to melt and then prepare the bills. The Electricity Dept. supplies power through diesel gensets for four hours a day and charges for eight.

The water supply dept lays and removes temporary water pipelines every season because this wasteful practice suits them. The list just goes on and on diverting crores to the pockets of all these officials. In Vaishno Devi, many of these departments perform similar tasks but they do that by charging the Shrine Board and not the Govt. Better accountability and quality control as a result is achieved by all agencies.

The Real Villains

Who then are the Real Villains stopping Kashmir from realizing the ultimate economic potential of Amarnath? The first name that Kashmiris would like to suggest is that of Dr. Arun Kumar, the ex-CEO SASB, who allegedly spoiled the atmosphere by making “ill-advised, inappropriate and vituperative comments” (in the words of the Govt. chargesheet against him) to the effect that Hindu pollution was no worse than Muslim pollution. We have obtained a transcript of what he actually said in that infamous press conference of 17 June 2008, and which is now a part of the records of the CAT.

We have also accessed the video recordings of his press conference which some one has uploaded in 8 parts on the You Tube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rXDHbMyugpQ. It is crystal clear that when Dr. Kumar did refer to the debate over Hindu pollution vs. Muslim pollution, he was not expressing his own personal opinion, but drawing attention to certain reports, opinions and viewpoints already appearing in the Kashmir press for quite some time to those effect, which he himself then criticized as ooljulool (nonsensical).

Apart from the fact that CAT absolved Dr. Kumar of any wrongdoing, it is interesting to note that Dr. Kumar has till date neither apologized for any of his allegedly “vituperative” comments nor withdrawn any of his allegedly “ill-advised, inappropriate” outbursts. On the other hand, he has been representing that this attempt of his “to clarify matters” was initiated, not only on the directions of the then Governor (and Chairman SASB) General SK Sinha but also on the advice of the Environment Committee of the J&K State Assembly conveyed during the course of its meeting held in Srinagar on 9 June 2008 under the chairmanship of Dr. Mustafa Kamal.

This Committee, like Gen. Sinha, was quite concerned at the way public mood in Kashmir was being poisoned against the Amarnath yatra and wanted SASB to vigourously clarify charges relating to pollution, deforestation, receding of glaciers, and anything else that was being pinned on Amarnath yatries. What happened thereafter, in the streets of Srinagar, as we all know, was more because of the blatant misreporting indulged in by many political elements and biased newspapers than because of what Dr. Arun Kumar allegedly said or didn’t say about pollution.

It would indeed be bad logic as well as bad science to claim that four lakh pilgrims cause more pollution in two months than the sixty lakh people inhabiting the Valley for twelve months; but it is now too late to start this debate all over again.

Who is then the next villain? Jammu wallahs would readily say that it is the Valley politicians, who prima facie  appear to be much more communal in their outlook than their counterparts in Jammu or Katra. Scratch them a little and they do come out (as in 2008) with fantastic visions of an Amarnath Nagar coming up at 14, 000 ft. and consisting of so many Hindus that the entire demographic complexion of Kashmir would be changed forever.

They wished to deny Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) any land in the area because Hindus then will cause more pollution; but have no answer if asked that if SASB doesn’t have any land, how can it make any permanent sewage treatment arrangements? And if Kashmiri politicians can tolerate land allotment to the Railways, Army, PWD, Islamic University, even Airtel and Reliance, then why not to a State Govt. created Shrine Board? Also if another Shrine Board in the same state created to look after Vaishno Devi (SMVDSB) can own over one lakh Kanals of forest land, then why this furore over just 800 Kanals for Amarnath? Because, as one Chief Minister once told Gen. Sinha, Amarnath is in Kashmir and Vaishno Devi in Jammu.

Kashmiris even today blame Jagmohan, but as most Jammuites believe, can the “secular” Kashmiris, after chasing out 4 lakh Kashmiri Pandits allow anything even remotely Hindu to take roots in their beloved Valley? Kashmiri politicians further hate the “cultural pollution” that will be accentuated if so many Hindu pilgrims are allowed round-the-year access to the Amarnath Shrine, reminding locals in the process of the strong Shaivite roots of Kashmir. But they have no problems if an equal number of Hindu tourists visit Kashmir throughout the year and spend time in Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Sonemarg or in the houseboats of Srinagarcausing more pollution to the Dal lake in the process. So the problem arises only when these Hindu tourists try to go beyond Pahalgam or Sonemarg towards Amarnath and in the process shout Har, Har, Mahadev or Bam, Bam Bhole!

To put the matter in perspective, it needs to be recalled that all these evocative “arguments” were being marshaled by political parties in 2008, which was a bitter election year. So while PDP’s Forest Minister was sanctioning SASB land in Baltal and PDP’s Law Minister was agreeing that this could be done legally, PDP’s politburo was on the streets demanding abrogation of the same land allocation order that its Forest Minister had issued.

And when that happened, thanks to a panicking Governor, PDP pulled the rung under Azad’s Govt., forcing elections under Governor’s rule. Kashmir quietened in 10 days but BJP had such a ready made issue for Jammu that Jammu shut down for two months. Both parties succeeded thereafter in raking up record number of seats in the State Assembly. With the political purpose achieved, now both are relatively quieter about the Amarnath issue.

Even Omar Abdullah is supposed to have contributed to the conflagration in Jammu with his rather inappropriate and uncalled for speech in the Parliament in July 2008 saying that “…hamari .zameen ka mudda tha, hum apne zameen ke liye lare aur ham marte dum tak apni zameen ke liye larenge”. (The speech is available on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-ZLw-kjP_g). Unable to stomach such a Kaurava-kind of behaviour, Kuldeep Dogra in Jammu is believed to have committed suicide and the rest, as they say, is history.

But what about Governor Vohra? Despite being such a seasoned bureaucrat and veteran interlocutor,  it was he who took upon himself to write that infamous letter to the State Govt., withdrawing SASB’s request for land in Baltal and suggesting that the Govt. (in stead of the SASB) make all arrangements for the Amarnath Yatra in future. Sources aver that no one in SASB, including Dr. Arun Kumar, had any hand in drafting that letter.

Rajbhavan sources also explain that a visit of Ghulam Nabi Azad, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti on the same date advising Vohra to write such a letter had actually clinched the issue. In fact, Vohra is supposed to be so miffed with Arun’s advice against writing that letter, that he on 28 June 2008 (just 3 days after he took over as Governor) got Dr. Kumar  attached to GAD, till CAT intervened to give Dr. Kumar some kind of a posting.  On expressing an apprehension that such a letter will set Jammu on fire, Vohra is said to have commented “who cares about Jammu?” Naturally Vohra had to earn the dubious distinction of being a Governor with maximum effigies burnt any where in India.

Most Jammuites suspect that despite all this Vohra has not learnt his lessons. This year he has insisted on reducing the yatra’s duration to 45 days from the usual 60. Sources in SASB suggest that he has not moved an inch on the ropeway project that could make the shrine accessible for at least six months. He has also shifted the helipad from the Holy Cave to Panjtarni, six kms away, that defeats the very purpose of having a helicopter service, but ensures that the local pony owners continue to have the unfettered right to harass yatries.

Vohra has also not only NOT added a single prefab/insulated hut but actually connived to get most of the existing huts removed and shifted to Katra. This he has done ostensibly to please the Kashmiri tent owners, who were agitating that a Hindu Shrine Board is attempting to snatch Muslim livelihoods by denying them the right to fleece! Should we then say that the biggest villain for stopping the Amarnath yatra from ever reaching the exponential levels of Vaishno Devi is the Chairman SASB himself?

Bhartihari, the ancient poet sage, had once advised that one should accept knowledge from all quarters just as one would pick up gold even if it be lying in a dung heap. It is time Kashmiris too realized the value of this hidden gold mine that they already have in the form of the Amarnath Shrine and disregarding and overruling all “villains” did something positive to let its economic benefits flow to every inhabitant of Kashmir.