Infrastructural needs and Environmental Impact - II : Shri Amarnath Yatra

Published: Wednesday, Oct 17,2012, 12:03 IST
Infrastructural needs and Environmental Impact, Shri Amarnath Yatra, Dr. C. M. Seth, Shri Amarnath Shrine Board, SASB, Kashmir valley, The Holy Cave, Vaishno Devi Shrine, Navratras, Baltal, Nunwan, Panjtarni, Pissotop, Shesh Nag, Shesh Nag, Mahagunus, Poshpathri

By Dr. C. M. Seth

Continued from Infrastructural needs and Environmental Impact - I
07. Environment Management and Nature Conservation : With number of Yatris to Holy Amarnathjee Cave (J&K) increasing every year, better management of Yatra on both the axis ie Pahalgam and Baltal has become of utmost importance. More particularly when some people are bent upon creating controversies over the duration of Yatra, conducting the Yatries to the cave and their stay enroute / as well as near the Holy Cave Shrine. Some may have no otherwise intentions and must be getting carried with the environmental concerns due movement and stay of the yatries. Theoretically they may have some bit to justify but it can not be over looked that we have to accommodate some unavoidable disturbances to the mother earth and her environment to facilitate the stay and needs of the naturally growing population . Similarly the issues of religious faith and Extreme Aasthas have to be accommodated as very very special extra ordinary needs and the auspicious Amarnathjee Shrine Yatra is such an extraordinary need that can not be ordinarily so simply disposed off. More over it is through the Hindu traditions that one is taught to respect, love, protect and even worship the trees and mountains.

This is one particular aspect concerning Amarnath Yatra that being so much being aired in the media. Recently the " Kashmir valley Civil Society " too has entered into the race. Even some people have termed linking the controversies over the Yatra with the environment as apolitical gamesman ship. Some have gone even further, I would not discuss the stake holders here.

7.1.1 It is the mountain eco system that is of immediate reference here. Mountain Ecosystem comprises of both tree growth at lower altitude and pastures at high altitude.

7.1.2 Other concerns are melting of glaciers, landslides, wildlife, medicinal plants, etc.

7.1.3 Now let us see how these are affected by the limited period of Yatra. Yatris do not extract medicinal plants illegally or legally like other places in the valley. After the Yatra is over, it is the Shikaris from Pahalgam, Kangan and other adjoining villages who enter the high altitude valleys to kill Ibex, Brown and Black bears, Musk deer, Hangul and other wild species. Yatris do not kill these animals but in fact Yatra provides sufficient security to these animals during the Yatra when Shikaris do not dare to kill these animals. More over the religious faith of the Hindu Yatries motivates them for supporting the wild life  some even worship the animals.

7.1.4 .About melting of glaciers, there are only two major glaciers along the yatra routes one is Sheshnag Mahagunas glacier and other is near Amarnath Cave.

No scientific study has been carried out to show that these two glaciers are melting at higher rate than other glaciers in the valley like Sonmarg and Kolohai. There is some scientific study being carried out by the Kashmir University for Kolohai glacier to study the impact of climate change and global warming on the melting of glaciers in Himalaya. Glaciers all over Himalaya are affected by global climate changes both positively and negatively. Same will hold true for other glaciers.
More over it is only for a limited period of Yatra snow is only cleared from the tracks and not that complete glaciers are cleared for yatra. Therefore, Yatra will not unduly speed up the melting of snow as is being apprehended by some to the extent of pleading for curtailing yatra and let the yatries carry on under physical and weather threats. Neither it will that adversely affect the climate of Kashmir valley as being affected by clearing the green cover for industrialization and over flowing number of automobiles burning Lakhs of tons of fuel in Kashmir valley surrounded by hills.

It will have its cycles of good and bad years of snow fall due to global climatic changes. Like this winter valley and western Himalayas had heavy snowfall. The holy Ice Lingam this year was available in sufficient height on Rakshabandan day. Where as last year it had nearly melted.

7.1.5 Regarding cutting of trees one has to very clear about the tree line along the Yatra routes. Along the Baltal route tree line is upto Letri followed by bushy forests of Juniperus and then high altitude pastures. Similarly along the Pahalgam route tree line is upto Pissu Ghati followed by bushy growth of Juniperus and Betula and then high altitude pastures upto Amarnath cave.

Who uses timber for construction, for firewood and extraction of high altitude herbs? All these are the requirement of the villages in the Lidder and Sindh valleys. No Yatri burns firewood, neither cuts the trees for construction and neither takes fodder from hill slopes for the cattle. All cooking during main Yatra is presently done in the Langars and by Army with cooking gas. is dependent on pastures? These are nomadic graziers and local herders of cattle. Nomadic graziers are the first to enter in the month of May and occupy slopes at High altitudes for grazing and are last to leave these high altitude in the month of August and September depending on season. It is estimated that more than two to three hundred nomadic deras bring their sheep and goat in these mountains for grazing for the last more than hundred years. In addition local graziers also bring cattle in these mountains for grazing. Therefore who is using and dependent on high altitude Pastures, if at all some one is  it is these graziers and not the Yatris who come late and leave early. Yatries neither bring their livestock nor construct timber Kothas on Behaks and neither cut precious Juniperus for burning. It has been often alleged due to no movement of people from out side to these areas there has been even ruthless cutting of Betula for fodder and Juniperus for burning and over the centuries such activities have made fragile mountain slopes barren of vegetation resulting into landslides and degradation of High altitude alpine ecosystems.

More than 10000 to 20000 sheep and goat along with horses and other cattle already graze and browse on these pastures much beyond the carrying capacity of the Alpine pastures but so far no civil society has so aggressively come forward against those who have been destroying the forests and mountains in Kashmir Valley over last six decades. Typical example of such impact of uncontrolled grazing along the Tracks can be seen at many places along the routes but the serious ones are the Letri along Baltal route and Sheshnag and Pissu Top along the Pahalgam route. No doubt it has to be taken care by J&K Government and not the SASB. Therefore, the J&K government should take steps to protect the landslides both through Soil Conservation Department and the Technology developed by SASE to protect the hill slopes. Extensive plantations of High Altitude Willows and other indigenous species like Betula, Birdcherry, Ash and high altitude shrubs should be undertaken along both the tracks, hilly slopes and inner valleys by the departments of Forest and Social Forestry. These actions would be needed even if there is no Yatra Productivity of High altitude pastures need to be increased by adopting conservational and promotional practices so that grazing could be split in sections and by alternate / controlled grazing methods nomadic graziers have not to exploit the pastures beyond their carrying capacity. All Nomadic Graziers should be provided with high altitude tents and cooking gas so that trees for Kotha construction are not felled and live Juniperus which is precious to protect High altitude pastures is not further uprooted and saved from extraction for fuel wood. To supply 200 gas cylinders and chullas to graziers is not a big deal for government for a period of two to three months from Baltal base camp and Chandanbari base camp. High altitude Tents and Gas can be supplied even out of the Tribal development plan of the State. Wildlife department should monitor the population of wildlife before and after the Yatra to see if there is any impact on the wildlife.

Department need to also monitor the health of wildlife species both ungulates and carnivores to check if there is any infection from the sheep and goat and domestic cattle. Department need to also observe if there is any effects on the health of wild animals due to feeding near the Langars. Wildlife department should fix power fence in such place where some animals are in the habit of coming near Langars. Salt lick should be provided to Ibex and other ungulate population along both the tracks. Special care is to be taken for the Marmots. These animals are very friendly and tend to come near the human beings. Yatris need to be advised not to give any food to these animals. Otherwise also Government should prepare a comprehensive environment management plan for the conservation of ecology and wildlife for the mountain scape of Himalayas along both the axis . This will not only help these mountains in ecological conservation but will also help in increasing the productivity of high altitude pasturelands. The project should be submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Forests Government of India for funding or else J&K government should fund this project out of CAMPA of the Forest department. Similarly wildlife department can submit a project to the Ministry for conservation of wildlife at high altitudes.

08. Waste Management : In the last three to four years steps taken by SASB has helped in reducing the solid and liquid waste at Nunwan and Baltal base camps by using the eco-friendly technology of biological treatment of liquid waste. .In addition two water testing laboratories are stationed at Baltal and Nunwan with scientific staff of the Pollution Control Board to monitor the quality of waste water coming out of the treatment plants/ tanks on daily, weekly and monthly basis. Reports of the monitoring team in general have indicated that the treated water do not contain the pollutants and if any time there are adverse reports  immediately corrections are made.

09. It is the responsibility of State Pollution Control Board to help the SASB and other Government agencies to maintain the pollution free waters of all the rivers and lakes of Kashmir valley particularly rivers of Sindh and Lidder. .Water of Sindh river is monitored from Domel to Sonmarg and downwards. Quality of river water does not indicate higher levels of pollutants. It is as good as drinking water. Similarly water of Lidder river is also monitored up and downstream of Pahalgam town and thee report indicates that there is more pollution from the Hotels and city sewerage . Where as water coming out of NUNWAN contains negligible pollutants.

10. As per the SASB for solid waste biodegradable and non biodegradable is collected, segregated and put for vermin-compost in the trenches. Plastic waste is either shredded or taken in big trucks for recycling. Special attention is paid post Yatra cleaning operations and for one week to ten days laborers are engaged to clean all the base and transit camps. Therefore chances of pollution of river waters of Lidder and Sindh are not based on scientific findings. As far the solid waste treatment and disposal both Sonmarg and Pahalgam Development Authorities have been allotted funds to develop scientific disposal, dumping and treatment sites including disposals also from Baltal and Nunwan base camps if still required.

11. So the Action Plan of 2013 and thereafter must and can safely include ( with out any measurable fears of undue damage to environment / ecology from the Yatra ) in the priority list  among other things, improving the safety conditions of Tracks on both the axis, widening of tracks atleast at critical points / junctures  realignment of tracks on critical points identified as "death" traps, erection of temporary structural shelter sheds. And ofcourse the work on acclimatization chambers, improving health care system at Base camps and at mid way / transit camps, waste management, deployment of disaster management units and regular / modern environment management plans need be speeded up.

Author is an environmentalist and field biologist and had headed the J&K State Pollution Control Board. Can be accessed at [email protected]

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