Sunday July 14, 2024

Pilgrimage at a Price: Impact of Amarnath Yatra on the fragile Himalayan ecosystem

By Humayun Aziz Sandeela
July 01, 2024
Hindu pilgrims leave leaving Amarnath Cave in southeast of Srinagar, IIOJ&K on July 2, 2019. — Reuters
Hindu pilgrims leave leaving Amarnath Cave in southeast of Srinagar, IIOJ&K on July 2, 2019. — Reuters

The Amarnath Yatra, an annual Hindu pilgrimage to the Amarnath Cave located at an altitude of 3,888 meters in the Himalayas in Indian illegally occupied Jammu and Kashmir, attracts hundreds of thousands of devotees each year. Although this significant religious event has both cultural and economic importance, but it also has raised environmental concerns, particularly regarding its impact on the fragile ecosystem of the region.

The Amarnath Cave, home to an ice stalagmite revered by Hindus as a manifestation of Lord Shiva, is accessible during a 45-day summer pilgrimage. Despite efforts by the Dogras since the late 19th century, the Yatra never fully integrated into Kashmir’s social fabric. However, it saw resurgence in the 1980s, with pilgrims increasing from 4,500 in 1950 to 353,969 in 2013. In 2019, 342,883 people visited the shrine, even though the pilgrimage was shortened. A Times of India report indicated 304,000 visitors in 2022 and over 428,000 in 2023.

This surge coincided with the rise of far-right Hindu militant groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Bajrang Dal. Government support became crucial, extending the Yatra to 63 days by 2023. In the 1990s, the pilgrimage was aligned with an Indian nationalist agenda, countering Kashmiri independence demands. The establishment of the Shri Amarnath Yatra Shrine Board (SASB) in 2001 reinforced state control, providing amenities and mobilizing Indian citizens to participate, transforms the Yatra into a symbol of national pride.

In 2008, the Government of India proposed transferring 100 acres of forest land to the SASB for constructing huts and other infrastructure for Amarnath yatris. This proposal raised suspicions among Kashmir’s pro-freedom leaders, who believed it was an attempt to settle non-local Hindus in the region. This suspicion led to a two-month-long agitation and widespread protests throughout Kashmir. Over 100 civilians were killed, and more than 1,000 protesters were injured. The widespread protests forced the Indian government to shelve its plan for the land transfer to the SASB.

Environmentalists consistently raise concerns about the unregulated influx of visitors. A 2012 Indian Supreme Court’s Special High-Power Committee acknowledged the ecosystem’s fragility but focused on yatri safety, neglecting environmental issues like noise pollution and human impact on glaciers and Lidder and Sindh rivers, and the surrounding forests and meadows.

Previous committees, such as the Sengupta Committee of 1996 and the Mukherjee Committee of 2000, were also established to ensure yatri safety. These committees recommended regulating the number of yatris traveling through the fragile landscape daily.

In 2006, the Jammu and Kashmir Pollution Control Board released a report highlighting critical environmental issues and reinforced the importance of controlling the daily number of pilgrims on both pilgrimage routes. However, these recommendations have never been implemented, neither for yatra safety nor environmental protection, suggesting that the journey’s purpose extends beyond a mere religious pilgrimage.

The influx of pilgrims generates significant waste, including plastic, and inadequate sanitation facilities lead to soil and water pollution. Temporary shelters and infrastructure result in deforestation and land degradation, contaminating water sources and accelerating glacier melt due to human activity. Apart from heavy footprint of pilgrims, this year the Indian government has deployed more than 100 companies of troops along the Pahalgam route, and another 90 companies along the Baltal route in the Kashmir Valley.

Increased human activity in the region also contributes to the accelerated melting of glaciers. Pollution and climate change induced by human activities raise temperatures, which in turn speeds up glacial melt, impacting the water availability downstream.

Rebecca Byerly in her report for National Geographic in 2012 also pointed out the same phenomenon that a glacier is subzero, but thousands of people emit radiation at 37 degrees Celsius, whether it is yatri or a helicopter there is a big radiation and temperatures rise. So, definitely that encourages the melting of snow and glacier resources in the region.

Transportation of pilgrims by vehicles also contributes to carbon emissions, increasing the region’s carbon footprint. Non-renewable energy sources for cooking, heating, and lighting add to greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental degradation disrupts local weather patterns, impacting climate and biodiversity.

A 2019 European Geoscience Union study revealed a 0.8°C increase in Kashmir’s average annual temperature over 37 years, leading to reduced snow accumulation and shorter water availability.

Kashmir is also located in seismic zone V, making it highly susceptible to earthquakes. Over the past two decades, the region has experienced more than 100 earthquakes, with the most devastating one in 2005 resulting in over 1,300 deaths and more than 6,000 injuries in occupied Kashmir. Climate change has been linked to increased seismic activity, highlighting the potential risk posed by the large-scale Amarnath Yatra in such a high-risk earthquake zone.

In the wake of the abrogation of Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status in 2019, India’s efforts to implement a settler-colonial project aimed at significant demographic changes have accelerated. The extension of the Yatra period to 63 days in 2023 indicates how Hindu religious tourism is being aligned with this agenda. Despite the ecological fragility of the region, the Indian government is determined to promote the “Hindu-isation” of Kashmir, furthering the broader Hindutva project and reinforcing its claims on the region.

This year, the 52-day Hindu pilgrimage is commenced from the twin tracks on June 29 and will conclude on August 19, 2024.