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Mired in controversies

The controversy over the authenticity of Shiv Lingam has taken most of the media space, but this in not the only controversy surrounding the Annual Amarnath Yatra. The Maliks of Batkoot are not content with the compensation offered by the Shri Amarnath Shirne Board in lieu of extinguishing their beneficiary rights; and a report by the State Pollution Control Board says the indiscriminate rush of pilgrims is playing havoc with the Himalayan environment. Gowhar Nazir Shah reports.

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Srinagar, Kashmir
June 30, 2006:

Thousands of devotees brave difficult terrain and weather every year to reach to the holy Amarnath cave situated in the Himalayas at an altitude of 3952 feet above sea level. For many devotees, this arduous journey is possible only through faith.

"For my age and health this trek is simply impossible, but it seems Bole (Shiva) infuses this intrinsic power into me as I climb this track." Says Mohan Madan, 55 a pilgrim from Madhya Pradesh.

Madan returned from the holy cave while the controversy of Shiv Lingam was gaining ground. And the controversy hurt Madan.

"It is faith that gives me the power to trek these mountains to reach Bole. If my faith is shaken I won't be able to trek again." Madan adds

Though Madan says the cave is important whether a lingam is formed or not but adds that "tampering with the lingam" has hurt his faith.

 Amarnath Yatra
The controversy over the authenticity of the Shiv Lingam has hurt many devotees like Madan but this is just one of controversies surrounding the Annual Yatra which by now seems to be mired in controversies.

The controversies range from the sidelining of the Maliks of Batkoot as beneficiaries, to the environmental degradation caused by the rush of pilgrims.

Pollution along the Amarnath trek has always been a concern for environmentalists. A recent report published by the State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) says the indiscriminate rush of pilgrims is playing havoc with the Himalayan environment.

"Amarnath Yatra has an important place in Hindu religion. The gathering of devotees in large number in a very short span exerts pressure on environmental resources in the area." Says Irshad Ahmad Khan, Chairman SPCB, in the foreword of the 37-page report-cum study.

Lidder, the once pristine river in the world famous tourist spot Pahalgam has to bear the burnt of growing pollution. The continuous pollution of the water body is likely to cause water born disease to the inhabitants of hundreds of villages who consume water from the river and has equally posed a threat to the aquatic life in the roaring river.

The SPCB report reveals that pilgrims and visitors to Pahalgam generate tonnes of waste per day, higher than the per capita waste in the area.

"Sanitary waste generated by domestic, commercial activities is often indiscriminately disposed and unscientific management of such waste leads to serious environmental and health problems. ...........

.......Open dumping of garbage serves as breeding ground for disease vectors such as flies, mosquitoes, cockroaches, rats and other pests." The report says.

The study adds that sewage as well as night soil generated from hotels, Yatri camps, and local residential areas is directly discharge into open drains which ultimately finds their ways into the river Lidder.

Seeking to put a ceiling on the number of pilgrims each year the survey (2006) also gives some recommendations to put a check on the increasing pollution.

The report also seeks minimal movement of vehicles in Pahalgam and describes movement of traffic to Chandanwari next to suicide.

In its recommendations, SPCB suggests that number of Yatris need to be restricted keeping in view the carrying capacity of the area. Use of polythene in and around Pahalgam en route holy cave should be strictly prohibited.

Solid waste in the forest areas and nearby water bodies shall be prohibited as pre municipal solid waste management and handling rules 2000. It also advocates the enforcement of strict laws in order to prohibit pilgrims/tourists to use the river Lidder bank for toilet purposes.

According to some environmentalist the stress on the environment may be the reason of non formation of the lingam this year. The extension of Yatra Duration from one month to two months consistently has added to the stress on the environment.

The extension of duration has itself been a bone of contention between the State and SASB in the last few years. The Mufti Sayeed Government was reluctant to extend the Yatra period in 2004 as desired by the Governor S K Sinha who is also the chairman of SASB. However Governor's will prevailed. Since then the Yatra duration has consistently been extended to two months.

 Amarnath Yatra
Adding to the list of controversies is the sidelining of the descendants of Butta Malik, the Muslim shepherd to whose credit goes the discovery of Amarnath cave.

According to an ancient tale, a Muslim shepherd named Butta Malik was given a sack of coal by a Sadhu which turned into gold once he reached home. Overjoyed Butta Malik rushed back to thank the Sadhu, but at the spot of their meeting he discovered a cave which eventually became a place of pilgrimage for believers.

Since then the descendants of Butta Malik residing in Batkoot Anantnag have been beneficiaries of one third share of offerings at the Amarnath Cave. The share was extinguished in 2000, as the state government formed the Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Board through an act passed by the state legislature.

The Malik descendants are not happy with the compensation amount of Rupees 1.12 lac offered in lieu of the extinguished beneficiary rights. The Maliks say the compensation amount recommended by one man tribunal appointed by SASB chairman is inadequate.

"It is total injustice with us that is why we have rejected it. In the year 2000, when we attended the cave for last time, we received rupees12 .50 lac as our one third share. Even in our petition we have disclosed our income in Lacs, "Says Mohammed Jabber Malik, Secretary of Association of Founders and Beneficiaries of Shri Amarnath Ji holy cave.

Malik says the tribunal has not acted as per the provisions laid down under section 19 of the Jammu and Kashmir Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Act 2000 titled Rights of Purohits and other persons. The provision in the section states that while making recommendations to the Board, the Tribunal shall have due regard to the income, which the rights holders have been deriving before the date of commencement of this Act.

The Maliks who have an emotional attachment with the Yatra are disappointed at being dislodged from the Yatra affair.

"Money is not everything. We have risked our lives many a times to keep yatra going on. We have an emotional attachment with the place," says Mohammed Afzal Malik, another descendent.

"Our unity with the Hindu community was unique in the world. It hurts us that we could not carry our ancestral service of serving the Amarnath devotees; still we made our mind to submit ourselves to government. But we feel deceived at the hands of Tribunal was well as SASB," says Ghulam Qadir Malik, President of Association of Founders and Beneficiaries of Shri Amarnath Ji holy cave.

Maliks are also angry over the fact that only they have been dislodged from the Yatra affair. The services of two other parties namely Purohits of Mattan and Mahant Giri (custodian of holy mace of lord Shiva) are still sought by the Board.

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