Supreme Court sets up panel to study Amarnath deaths

New Delhi: The Supreme Court Friday set up a high-powered committee, headed by the Jammu and Kashmir governor, to study reasons for the growing number of deaths of pilgrims during the annual Amarnath Yatra.

The panel, which will also suggest steps to facilitate the pilgrimage, will include among others the secretaries of the home and environment ministries, and the director generals of Border Security Force (BSF), Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and Border Roads Organisation (BRO). It will also have representatives of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board.

The Jammu and Kashmir chief secretary will be the nodal officer of the panel and the governor its chairman as he heads the board. The chief secretary would hold meetings and maintain minutes of the meetings.

Taking suo motu cognisance of reports of the deaths of pilgrims who make the trek to the high-altitude cave shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva, Justice B.S. Chauhan and Justice Swatanter Kumar said the panel would visit the place to have a first hand account of the situation.

The court asked Solicitor General Rohinton Nariman to assist it in the matter.

“Every day we hear someone dies. The high rate of mortality is undisputed,” the court said.

According to the latest estimate, 86 people have died since the pilgrimage started June 25.

Reiterating that it was a delicate matter, the court said that lakhs undertake the pilgrimage every year and there was a tremendous increase in deaths.

The court noticed that the approach path leading to the shrine, located at 11,000 feet altitude, was very narrow with pilgrims moving either on foot, horse-backs or in palanquins.

“Due to the lack of space, pilgrims skid and fall thousands of feet below and die,” said Justice Kumar.

“It is a glacier. There is ice below and sky above,” he added.

The court blamed the lack of facilities for the growing number of deaths of devotees.

Pointing to the lack of public amenities, the court said that there were two poles that held up a polythene sheet to serve as the public convenience for women.

Justice Kumar also noted that people sometimes waited an entire day to pay obeisance at the shrine.

When counsel for the SASB told the court that the shrine board had made arrangements for the pilgrims, the court pulled him up. Justice Swatanter Kumar said: “Less said the better.” The court said had it been so, the court would not have intervened.

Giving details of the panel, the court said committee members could nominate their representatives but they should not be below the rank of additional secretary.

The panel, which has been told to suggest ways to ease problems faced by Amarnath pilgrims, was told to submit a preliminary report before Aug 13.

The court said that the high-powered committee would make suggestions to the apex court, which in turn would issue directions to the government.

Holding that everything would be done by the government or its agencies with no private involvement, the court said: “These people (members of the committee) will visit the place and see what can be done (to facilitate the yatra of pilgrims) without damaging the environment.”

“It is a delicate issue. It requires thinking at all levels. You have to find some permanent solution and fixing of guidelines coupled with fixing of responsibility,” the court said in the course of the hearing.

When a lawyer representing a private company said that his client was willing to undertake the construction of the road leading to Amarnath Shrine without any quid pro quo, the court said that the offer could be made before the committee.


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