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Amarnath Shrine Board: change for change?

After being at the centre of some big and small controversies in Indian administered Kashmir the infamous land row being the biggest the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board has been reconstituted. The new board includes an environmentalist for the first time and some eminent personalities like the Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Shahnawaz Khan reports on the change that analysts say is meant to change.

Srinagar,February 03, 2009:

The year 2008 was one of the most turbulent years in Indian administered Kashmir in recent decades which not only saw some of the largest pro-freedom demonstrations in recent decades, but also polarised the region deeply on regional and communal lines.

The demonstrations triggered by government's controversial land transfer to Hindu mountain cave shrine Amarnath saw the Hindu dominated Jammu province up in arms against the Muslim dominated Kashmir valley.

It was not the first time that the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) headed by then Governor S K Sinha had fallen into a controversy. It was just the biggest one.

In the past years, Governor Sinha in his capacity as the Chairman of the board, along with his favourite bureaucrat, Arun Kumar, the CEO of SASB, ensured the board remained in news.

In 2004 Governor S K Sinha took cudgels with state chief minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed over the duration of pilgrimage. Sayeed was reluctant to extend the pilgrimage period to two months from one over security concerns.

In 2006 the SASB was accused of placing an artificial lingam in place of the ice lingam, a stalagmite that failed to form that year. Many environmentalists said the increased human traffic to the cave during an extended duration was a possible cause for quick melting and non-formation of the lingam.

A report by State Pollution Control Board in 2006 said the annual pilgrimage was exerting pressure on the fragile ecology of the area and the waste generated by pilgrims created risks of water borne diseases, a concern often overlooked by SASB.

The SASB under governor S K Sinha has often been accused of running a parallel government, which ignored the recommendations of state government as well as civil bodies.

In 2008, a land transfer by government to board and proposed plans to build pilgrim facilities on the land stirred huge protests in Kashmir valley. The protests subsided when the government rescinded the order, leading only to counter protests in Jammu province. The government backtracked again.

After being through its most turbulent year, the board has got some new faces. Governor Narendra Nath Vohra who took over from Governor Sinha in the midst of storm in June 2008 has roped in some eminent personalities.

The new members include renowned spiritual teacher and founder of 'Art of Living' Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Santoor maestro Pandit Bhajan Sopori and environmentalist Sunita Narain. Justice (Retd) G D Sharma from the state judiciary is the only link from the previous board.

Dr Ved Kumari Ghai, a renowned Sanskrit scholar and Dr Kapila Vatsyayan, a member of the upper house of the Indian bi-cameral parliament and renowned scholar of Indian dance and classical arts are the two other members of the six member board.

While the reconstitution has been called routine, insiders say the motive was to undo the damage the previous boards have done.

The composition of the new board itself indicates a serious change. The inclusion of Sri Sri, Sopori, or an environmentalist is nothing routine.

In fact it is the first time an environmentalist is on the board, a serious break from routine for a board that has been rebuffing the criticism of environmentalists. Sunita Narain, Director of Centre for the Study of Environment, and the Society for Environmental Communication is known for her environmental concerns. (Remember the Coke Pepsi pesticide content controversy or the opposition to Tata Nano project.)

Narain who edits the environmental newsmagazine Down to Earth is also a member of Prime Minister's Council on Climate Change and Commission on Climate Change and Development, Sweden.

She says her priority would be to balance the need for ecology and facilities for pilgrims.

"The areas I think I would be looking into are at better management of the two month long journey, we have to have good garbage management, management of toilets. That is a major area of technology also because of cold climate you do not get kind of decoction that you get in other parts. So we have to look what kind of toilet technology works well in the area," Narain told Kashmir Newz.

Narain has not done any previous work on Amarnath and says that she needs time to understand the specific issues.

"The state government approached me and said it was important," Narain said adding she was looking at it as a "model".

"If we can somehow succeed in Amarnath, we can succeed in other pilgrimage places," said Narain.

She sees her involvement as a growing concern in society about the management and ecological concerns of pristine pilgrimage areas.

"The reason we have pilgrimage in pristine areas is because these are pristine. Whether it is Gangotri or Amarnath. Gods lived where there was beauty, where ecology was at its pristine."

Apart from facilities to pilgrims, Narain hopes to improve the management of the cave and involving local communities.

"Then one whole area of work also would be the management of the shrine area (cave) itself. . . As an environmentalist I was aware that the Shiv Lingam had melted which can possibly be an impact of human as well as global warming."

However Narain's challenge may not be that simple. Environmentalists have in the past recommended a cap on the number of pilgrims and duration of the pilgrimage.

It was the "jingoistic" approach of Governor Sinha that a traditional 15-day pilgrimage attracting pilgrims in thousands, became a two month affair bringing half a million pilgrims to the area.

However, in the deeply polarised state after the land row, reverting to original duration can have political consequence.

While Narain would like to restrict herself to environmental issues, the other members will have to deal with the political concerns.

It is Sri Sri's work on interfaith dialogue and understanding that the state wants to utilise to possibly restore the Amarnath pilgrimage to its identity of communal harmony and brotherhood.

Sopori's non-controversial image serves the same purpose. He also represents the Kashmiri Pandit voice in the Board, a demand that surfaced from various quarters during the Amarnath agitation.

Sopori says he will try to project and strengthen the communal harmony, that the pilgrimage once stood for.

The Amarnath cave was discovered by a Muslim Shepherd, Butta Malik. For decades the Malik clan, along with Hindu priests managed the affairs of the pilgrimages.

The Malik clan was sidelined in 2000 when the state government formed the Amarnath Shrine Board. In subsequent years the board was even accused of unduly taxing the local pony owners and other service providers.

Most of the members, who met on February 2, are silent over the past controversies. However, it is no secret the Amarnath shrine board is one of the most sensitive concerns in the state today.

Undoing the past mistakes and addressing any concerns involves bold decisions, that can agitate either Jammu or Kashmir.

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