Srinagar: It has been more than 72 hours since a cloudburst near the Amarnath shrine led to a flash flood that swept away dozens of pilgrims, killing at least 15.
During this period, there is no formal statement by the Amarnath Shrine Board or the Jammu and Kashmir administration about the exact number of missing pilgrims. An initial estimate by different security agencies had put the number at 40. Eventually, there were many more distressed calls from relatives who couldn’t contact their dear ones who had gone for the yatra.
Officials say several pilgrims who couldn’t contact their families have been found. Yet, no one knows the exact number of victims who may have been buried under debris.
Official sources say chances of finding any survivors now are bleak. But there is a baffling silence from the shrine board about the number of missing pilgrims.
The shrine board has come under criticism for the handling of the yatra and placing tents at a vulnerable place near the cave shrine, which was hit by cloudburst and flash floods last year well.
On July 28 last year, flash floods apparently triggered by a cloudburst hit tents and several other structures near the cave. Due to coronavirus restrictions, there were no pilgrims and so, no loss of life.
Yet, no lessons were learnt. The shrine board chose the same camping site again which is located on a rivulet right next to the cave shrines and prone to flash floods.
In the past, no camping site was allowed beyond Panchtarni – 5 km from the cave shrine. Farooq Abdullah, who has played a key role in the constitution of Amaranth Shrine board during his tenure as chief minister, has demanded a probe.
“I don’t think tents were ever pitched at this place before. It’s the first time. When they have better place like Panchtarni, it was happening for centuries. I believe there should be a probe. This can be a human error” said Mr Abdullah.
This is the second time when the Amarnath Yatra has been hit by a calamity of this magnitude and cost so many lives. In 1996, over 200 people – mostly pilgrims – were killed due freak weather conditions.
Subsequently, the Nitish Sengupta Commission made recommendations about the conduct of the yatra to prevent a repeat of such tragedies. The recommendations include limiting the number of pilgrims and factoring in environment and ecological issues.
But over the years, the yatra was often seen through the security prism and all other concerns have taken a backseat.
This year, the government has made record breaking security arrangements for the yatra. Besides an overwhelming existing security structure available in the Valley, 350 additional companies (35,000 personnel) of paramilitary forces were brought in for the yatra security.
On an average, 10 to 15 security forces personnel are deployed for the security of each pilgrim. From Jammu to base camps – in Pahalgam and Baltal, the 350 to 400 km long road is manned by troops from all security agencies.
Once a major source of cultural and social integration, the pilgrims are now restricted to security convoys and no local resident is allowed to walk or drive on road when the yatra convoys move.
As part of security measures to keep the track of the moment of yatris, every pilgrim was allotted a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags. But the Friday’s tragedy put a question mark on its usefulness. No missing pilgrim could be tracked with the help of RDIF.
While the Yatra was resumed today and new tracks are being built en-route the cave, the missing pilgrims have not even made it to a statistic. No one knows how many were swept away and lost.
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