Heavy Amarnath Rush Threatens Pilgrims

Heavy Amarnath Rush Threatens Pilgrims

17 July 2011
Times of India
Amit Bhattacharya

Baltal: The rush of pilgrims to Amarnath this year and inadequate crowd control at critical points along the trekking route to the holy cave in Kashmir are leading to dangerous overcrowding on the narrow mountain trails near the ice shrine, increasing the risk of a stampede that could put hundreds of lives in danger. The Amarnath shrine board and the J&K administration have been asserting that the yatra is 'proceeding normally'. But during a trek to the shrine, TOI found these claims were clearly glossing over the congestion on certain high-altitude paths where yatris, horses and palanquin-bearers are perilously stuck for long periods of time. Till reports last came in, 59 people have died during this year's yatra, a majority of them due to cardiac arrest and other ailments. 'Half-an-hour after starting out for the shrine from Panchtarni, which is 6km from the holy cave, we were trapped in a jam for close to two hours. There was not an inch of space on the path. There was pushing and shoving as yatris got restless. A sudden movement of a horse or commotion in a section of the crowd could have caused a big stampede,' said Pankaj Dutta, a student from Guwahati, who did the pilgrimage last week. Pilgrims and security personnel on the route said this was a daily occurance. 'The number of pilgrims has to be regulated from below,' said an Army Major on the Panchtarni route as soldiers attempted to get yatris to form a single line. 'There's very little we can do from here to control the situation.' TOI found two major problem spots within a 6km radius of the 3,880-metre high cave shrine - one just beyond Panchtarni on the way to the cave and the other at a point where two paths met on the Baltal path, which is a shorter route to get to the shrine. At both places, Army, paramilitary personnel and cops struggled to control the situation as the crowd of pilgrims got restless. R K Goyal, chief executive officer of the Amarnath shrine board, said yatris must take part of the blame for the overcrowding. 'We had requested all pilgrims to register online or through J&K Bank branches across the country. But unregistered pilgrims kept coming. However, things are settling down as securitymen have taken measures to allow only registered pilgrims from Jammu,' Goyal said. He said the shrine board authorities had proposed to allow only 3,400 pilgrims daily to trek up to the cave but people were 'forcibly' making their way to the cave. The board's proposal on allowing just 3,400 pilgrims is in line with recommendations of the Nitish Sengupta committee, which was set up after snow storms and bad weather caused the death of 243 pilgrims in 1996. However, there seems to be no mechanism in place to control the number of pilgrims. According to official figures, nearly 3.75 lakh pilgrims had visited the shrine till Friday. Since the yatra started on June 29, the average number of visitors to the cave shrine each day comes to 22,000 pilgrims. Both security personnel on duty in the area and experts agree that this number is way above the safe limit. SP Ramesh Kumar Bhat of J&K Police, who is in-charge of security in the shrine area, said his force had been struggling to cope with the volume of pilgrims. 'On the first two-three days, there was a 4km-long queue of yatris waiting for a darshan,' he said. With inputs from Saleem Pandit in Srinagar


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