WEATHER vagaries notwithstanding, over three lakh pilgrims had darshan at the holy cave shrine of Shri Amarnath situated in deep Himalayas in South Kashmir district of Anantnag in first 14 days of the yatra. The 46-day yatra commenced simultaneously from Baltal and the traditional route of Pahalgam on June 29.
This is the highest number of pilgrims visiting the holy cave so far in first 14 days of pilgrimage, a Yatra officer said. But the mismanagement on the part of the Shrine Board has led to fleecing of pilgrims by private shopkeepers in the Valley, which forced many pilgrims to return without darshan after their entire money was exhausted. However, majority of these pilgrims, who since returned their homes, were unregistered.
This is for the first time in the history of the yatra that at an average of 20,000 pilgrims had darshan per day, which has resulted in early melting of the Shivlingam. The size of the Shivlingam has been reduced by 50 per cent since the yatra began.
The Jammu & Kashmir Government is also blamed for having violated the recommendations of Nitesh Sengupta Committee by allowing more than 20,000 pilgrims to visit the holy cave per day.
The Nitish Sengupta Committee had recommended that the number of yatris to be permitted to visit the cave should be restricted to 5,000 per day. This recommendation was made for the safety and comfort of the pilgrims.
Number of pilgrims, on way back from the yatra, said that allowing nearly 20,000 pilgrims to move to the cave per day did not allow “us” to spend even 10 seconds inside the holy cave.”
Ramesh Kumar from Haryana’s Rohtak said, “My family members and I had to undergo a number of hardships while making it to the cave. But we were disgusted when we could not stay inside the cave for offering prayers for more than seven seconds.” He said “it is totally unjust.” In view of the risk the Government took with the lives of the yatris the Shrine Board and the State Government should extend the duration of the annual yatra to 60 days from the next year.
A group of pilgrims, who paid obeisance at the holy abode of Lord Shiva after obtaining valid permit alleged that there was hardly any screening of the yatra slips by the Board or security personnel deployed at the base camp or enroute. “It is nothing but total mismanagement as there was lack of coordination among the Board officials, security forces, police and state government officials,” they said.
The overcharging complaints by Amarnath pilgrims are rampant. Even the pilgrims allege that helicopter tickets were sold at higher rates. The decision of Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) to allocate some tickets for helicopter service for the annual yatra to travel and tourism associations has resulted in the pilgrims being overcharged for the service.
The SASB has notified the rates for the helicopter service for both Baltal and Pahalgam routes leading to the 3880-metre high cave shrine but many pilgrims have complained that they were charged 30 to 45 per cent higher by travel agents. “I was shocked when a travel agent asked me to pay Rs 9,000 for a return ticket on Pahalgam route and Rs 7,000 for Baltal route,” AK Tiwari, a pilgrim from Uttar Pradesh, said. The normal return fare for the traditional Pahalgam route set by the SASB is Rs 6,900 person while for the shorter Baltal route it is Rs 4850 per person.
Tired and heartbroken, Nattu Bhai and his wife Jasu Ben were taking feeble steps. With tears in their eyes and hoping to return next year they were on their way to Pahalgam for onward journey to Baroda, Gujarat, without having darshan of the holy ice lingam.
They had planned the yatra last year and had been saving money for whole year to make this holy journey. But they exhausted their money in Sheshnag and decided to return.
Fifty eight year old Nattu Bhai is the leader of the 11 member group, mostly elders. All of them are from same locality of Baroda, Gujarat. “We had brought money as per the rates claimed by the Government. But here we were overcharged. For tented accommodation we were charged Rs 250 per person while the rate is Rs 90. We were charged Rs 4,500 by pony-walas from Chandanwadi to Amarnath Cave while the rate is Rs 3,200. And palki-walas charged us Rs 18,000” while rate is only Rs 13,000,” Nattu Bhai rued.
According to sources the problems faced by the Amarnath pilgrims could have been eased to a great extent had the authorities and Board implemented the recommendations of Nitish Sengupta Committee and there would have been no mess due to heavy influx of the pilgrims.
VHP state president Dr Ramakant Dubey said in its recommendations Justice Kohli Commission had suggested installation of mobile STDs and mobile medical aid centres enroute besides construction of shelter houses. But these recommendations were never met, resulting in the yatra mess due to increasing rush. Had the government taken care of these recommendations the problems on account of heavy influx of pilgrims could have been eased to a great extent.