The environmental disaster in Uttarakhand, which killed over 800 people, mostly pilgrims, has had an impact on the Amarnath Yatra this year.
The annual pilgrimage, which draws lakhs of pilgrims to the mountain cave in the Himalayas, has seen a drop in numbers this year. The pilgrimage began on Thursday.
According to sources, there is a steep drop in the number of yatris registered this year as compared to the last year. According to the Amarnath shrine board, only 12,700 yatris have registered for the first day of the pilgrimage, whereas the shrine board allows 15,000 yatris for the pilgrimage each day. Pertinently, the board was forced to fix a ceiling of 7,500 yatris per day on each of the two routes leading to the cave due to heavy rush of yatris in 2012.
Over 100 pilgrims were killed last year. According to reports, out of 130 deaths, 88 died due to health reasons while the rest were killed in road mishaps.
Tour operators managing the chopper service to the cave say first week has seen about 15 to 20% cancellations. Last year, nearly 40,000 yatris travelled in choppers.
"We have had cancellations, but there has always been a waiting list so we make up for the cancellations," says Nazir Bakshi, owner of Shiraz Travels.
Amarnath cave is located at an altitude of 13,000 feet. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims undertake a long trek through difficult terrain to reach the cave, where they pay homage to the Hindu deity Shiva. The pilgrimage is usually open for 55 days every year. According to official figures, around 6 lakh pilgrims visited Amarnath in 2012.
However, officials say all measures are in place to ensure a smooth yatra. "We have followed the directions by the honourable court regarding conducting yatra this year," an official said.
"We had three advanced weather monitoring systems last year and this year, the number has gone up by six. So we can give accurate weather warning and stop yatra at any time," he added.
The weather on the yatra route changes frequently. According to officials, it can change suddenly from bright, sunny to heavy rain/snow, particularly in afternoon every day. Besides the high intensity sustained rainfall or snowfall over a longer period increases the likelihood of avalanches, cloudburst, flash floods and heavy snow on the treks, especially in the upper reaches of the yatra area.
The more vulnerable stretches for cloudburst, heavy rain, flash floods and heavy snow are important pilgrimage points like Panjtarni, Sheshnag, holy cave, MG Top, Wavbal Top, Poshpatri, Brarimarg, Baltal and Sangam. The nullah at the holy cave area is most vulnerable to flash floods given the topography of the area.
According to experts the potential loss to human life and property, at this location, is highest because the area adjoining the nullah is crowded with yatris.
Besides the Uttarakhand tragedy, the drop in the number of pilgrims can also be attributed to news reports about melting Shiva lingam as well as rumoured terror threat. Even the shrine board agrees that the numbers may be less this time.
According to officials, not just Uttarakhand tragedy, the rumoured terror threat can also have a negative impact. "A person living in a remote village in Karnataka will not know what is happening on the ground. For him, the news of environmental disaster in Uttarakhand and the rumours about terror threat can have an impact," said Amarnath Shrine Board CEO Naveen Choudhary.
The controversy regarding threat to Amarnath Yatra this year started when Northern Corps commander Lt Gen KT Parnaik announced in Jammu on June 17 that militants plan to "disrupt the Amarnath Yatra this year".
The reports were, however, refuted by the state chief minister. "The threat is no more or no less than what it has always been," insisted chief minister Omar Abdullah. "We are taking all regular precautions with a multi-layer security grid. The media reports saying attack on the yatra is feared are a gross exaggeration.