On the day the Amarnath Yatra was scheduled to begin, the J&K administration announced that the annual pilgrimage will not be held this year. Given the coronavirus pandemic, the Yatra had already been shortened and was to start on July 21 and end August 3, instead of the usual 45-day duration.
The decision follows questions being raised over the administration planning for the Yatra even as other religious gatherings in Jammu and Kashmir have been barred till July 31 because of Covid-19. The Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) said it would organise “live telecast/virtual darshan” of the morning and evening prayers.
Sources said security of the Yatra was also a major concern this year and one of the deciding factors in its cancellation. Last year, the pilgrimage to the hill shrine had been abruptly curtailed just ahead of abrogation of J&K’s special status on August 5.
The SASB announced the cancellation of the Yatra after a meeting with Lt Governor G C Murmu, who is also the Chairman of the Board. An official release said that Covid-19 had pushed the health system “to its limit”, and pointed out that all religious gatherings in the Union Territory are barred. “The spike has been particularly very sharp in July. Health workers and security forces are also getting infected and the focus of (the) entire medical, civil and police administration at the moment is on containing the local transmission… the strain on the health system, along with the diversion (of) resources to the Yatra, will be immense. This would also unnecessarily put the Yatris at risk of catching Covid-19,” the Board said.
The government too had suggested that it was not advisable to hold the Yatra, it said. “This would enable the administration to focus on the immediate challenges facing them rather than diverting resources, manpower and attention to the conduct of the Shri Amarnathji Yatra”.
On July 4, Chief Secretary B V R Subrahmanyam had directed testing of all pilgrims. It was also decided that to meet social distancing norms and the quarantine requirement for people coming from outside, the pilgrimage would be for 15 days, allowed only on one route and largely by air. Four new helipads had been constructed for this purpose by the Pahalgam Development Authority, close to the shrine. On July 5, Lt Governor Murmu performed this year’s first puja at the cave. Last week, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh visited the shrine following his trip to Ladakh.
However, arrangements for testing and quarantine were still not finalised. In 2018, when the last full Yatra was held, nearly three lakh pilgrims had visited the shrine.
Sources said the administration was also worried regarding “the increased threat perception this year”. A senior police officer said, “With tensions far from abating on the LAC (Line of Actual Control) in Ladakh, the Army is completely focused on that front… It was one of the major factors that compelled the government to decide against the Yatra this year.”
Every year, over 40,000 personnel of the J&K Police, Army and paramilitary forces are deployed to secure the route to the cave shrine, located 3,888 metres above the sea level, in the Himalayas in South Kashmir.
Following a sharp spike in July, J&K Covid numbers are up to 6,100 active cases, over 4,900 of them in the Valley. On Monday, the Union Territory saw its highest single-day spike of 751 cases.
Earlier, on July 13, hearing a petition seeking cancellation of the Yatra, the Supreme Court had left the matter to the local administration.
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