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Kashmir: Where a Pilgrimage Threatens a Delicate Ecosystem

Plastic bags and bottles comprise a major part of the rubbish that clogs this delicate mountain ecosystem when scores of Hindu devotees flock to the Amarnath cave in Kashmir to worship a representation of the god Shiva. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/IPS

PAHALGAM, India, Aug 17 2015 (IPS) - As he struggled to find a section of the stream clean enough to rinse off his muddy shoes, Mohan Kumar, a Hindu pilgrim on his way to the holy Amarnath shrine in Indian-administered Kashmir, gazed with despair over the filth that lay thick on the landscape.

“I fail to understand how our journey of faith can reconcile with all this filth." -- Mohan Kumar, a Hindu pilgrim on his way to the holy Amarnath shrine in Kashmir
What should have been a well-maintained track leading to one of the world’s most visited religious sites was instead clogged with human excrement and plastic waste, much of it contaminating the stream that runs alongside the path.

Standing at over 3,800 metres above sea level, the 40-metre-high Amarnath cave houses a stalagmite that is believed to be a representation of the god Shiva. For two months each year, between July and August, over half-a-million devotees make the perilous five-day trek, known as the Amarnath Yatra, to pay homage to one of the supreme deities of the Hindu pantheon.

But in their rush to reach sacred ground the devotees leave behind a sorry sight: piles of trash that blot the scenic views of the foothills and valleys of Jammu and Kashmir, a mountainous Himalayan state of exceptional natural beauty.

“I fail to understand how our journey of faith can reconcile with all this filth along the track,” Kumar told IPS. “I have come for a spiritual journey, but what I see along the way disgusts me. If this vandalism continues for another few years, it will mean an end to the pilgrimage.”

Ten metric tons of trash a day

He is not the only one with strong concerns about the future of this delicate ecosystem.

A steep rise in the number of visitors to the shrine in recent years also has environmental experts and public health officials on edge: government data indicate that the number of worshippers has sharply increased from 4,500 in 1950 to 650,000 in 2012, while tourist arrivals shot up from 15,000 in 1950 to two million in 2012.

The logistics involved in the yatra place a huge burden on the authorities. For the duration of the pilgrimage, which lasts 60 days, 7,000 security personnel are deployed on the mountain, along with 1,500 ponies and as many men for carrying worshippers and their belongings.

“Based on these numbers our modest estimates suggest that [at an average] a minimum of 10,000 people visit the Amarnath cave every day,” an official of the Pollution Control Board (PCB) of Srinagar told IPS on the condition of anonymity.

“An average person generates about a kilogram of waste everyday; this means that 10 metric tons of waste are left behind every day for 60 days.”

Despite a government ban on polythene use in the state, much of the debris left behind by the pilgrims, or yatris as they are called, comprises plastic bags and bottles.

Furthermore, according to Riyaz Ahmed Lone, an environmentalist who heads the Pahalgam Peoples’ Welfare Organisation (PPWO), the garbage disposal and sanitation facilities provided by the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) are inadequate to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of devotees, who are forced to defecate in the open on the mountainside.

Added to the mix of plastic and human feces is gotka (chewing tobacco) and the excrement of ponies and donkeys, all of which eventually gets washed away into nearby streams that feed into the Lidder and Sindh rivers.

Other PCB officials who did not wish to be named told IPS that at least half a dozen fully functional Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) need to be set up to facilitate the proper functioning of several hundred toilets that serve the tourists and worshippers.

Currently there are only two STPs, which, environmental activists say, do not function properly, allowing effluent to flow untreated into larger water bodies.

These rivers subsequently provide water to roughly two million people throughout Kashmir, explained Shakil Romshoo, who heads the Earth Sciences Department at Kashmir University.

Kashmir’s Public Health Engineering (PHE) Chief Ghulam Mohammad Bhat added that 85 percent of the state’s drinking water needs are met by surface water sources in the mountains.

“But, it is a common knowledge that we have no healthy arrangements for sanitation here,” he told IPS.

“Not only the waste from open defecation areas, but also the sewer systems [from tourist hotels] are connecting with our rivers and contaminating our water bodies,” Bhat stressed.

An official at his office added that if people could see “what kind of water we treat at our treatment plants, they would not drink even a drop of it.”

According to India’s Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS), Jammu & Kashmir ranks 23rd rank on a list of 30 states surveyed, with only 41.7 percent sanitation coverage as per the 2011 census.

Human waste left behind by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims during the Amarnath Yatra in Indian-administered Kashmir flow untreated into nearby rivers. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/IPS

Human waste left behind by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims during the Amarnath Yatra in Indian-administered Kashmir flow untreated into nearby rivers. Credit: Athar Parvaiz/IPS

Limiting arrivals and beefing up logistics

Lone told IPS that activists and experts “want the organizers to ensure environmental protection and proper regulation of the pilgrimage, by reducing the number of pilgrims to the permissible limit as per the carrying capacity of the fragile mountain ecology on a single day.”

Until the late 1990s, official data reveals, the pilgrimage had never crossed the 100,000 mark. Noted Indian human rights activist Gautam Navlakha says that the numbers started multiplying only after the establishment of the SASB in 2002 – an all-Hindu body with no representation from the majority Muslim population.

A few years after its formation, Navlakha says, the SASB extended the pilgrimage from 30 to 60 days, a move that is still mired in controversy, with environmental activists arguing strongly against the longer duration.

Pointing to tough restrictions on the number of pilgrims allowed into ecologically fragile zones like Mansarovar in Tibet and Gomukh – the snout of the Gangotri Glacier that forms the source of the Ganges River – in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, Navlakha has called for similar rules to govern the Amarnath Yatra.

Quoting the landmark 1996 Nitish Sengupta Committee report, he told IPS, “Along with the regulation of the total number of pilgrims to about 100,000, we could lay down a ceiling of 3,000 pilgrims permitted to travel in a single day.”

Nearly two decades after the report was released, these recommendations have been wantonly disregarded. Figures on the 2015 Yatra available on the SASB website indicate that the daily average between Jul. 2 and Aug. 13 far exceeded 3,000, with Jul. 6 alone witnessing over 20,000 worshippers on the mountains.

A May 2015 study on sustainable tourism in Kashmir published in the journal Elsevier revealed that the tourist flow in July for Pahalgam alone was almost fourfold the Tourism Carrying Capacity (TCC) of the mountain.

Shakil Qalandar, a member of the Kashmir Centre for Development and Social Studies (KCDS), said that civil society would continue to press for necessary restrictions on the number of pilgrims to better reflect the area’s carrying capacity until their demands are met.

“We have formally presented this demand to the government saying we are in full support of an ecologically-friendly pilgrimage for our Hindu brethren,” Qalandar told IPS.

The environmental implications of not dealing with the situation are enormous.

Hindu religious scholar and social activist Swami Agnivesh has even suggested that the growing number of pilgrims might have been the catalyst for the devastating floods that swept Kashmir in September 2014, resulting in a death toll of 600 and incurring economic losses of some 18 billion dollars.

According to an assessment report prepared by Kashmir’s Department of Environment, Ecology and Remote Sensing (DEERS) after the September 2014 floods, ecological degradation across the state is a major catalyst of natural disasters.

The study revealed that since 1992 Kashmir has lost 10 percent of its forest cover as tourism infrastructure encroached into wooded areas. It added that in the last century, the state’s total extent of water bodies plummeted from 356 square km in 1911 to just 158 square km in 2011.

Dealing with the challenges of sustainable religious tourism has been a concern all over the globe with the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) estimating that 300 to 330 million tourists visit the world’s key religious sites every year.

Kashmir is in a unique position to set a global example, but it will have to overcome numerous political hurdles and religious sensitivities in order to do so.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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