After demanding a raise in their service rates, mule operators in the Kedarnath valley have hit out at the state government for outsourcing a major chunk of the business to a Jammu and Kashmir firm, saying the decision hit their economy and employment opportunities.
Mule operators carry pilgrims from Sonprayag to the Kedarnath shrine, traversing one of the most steep terrains of the Himalayas. The pedestrian track for the shrine starts from Sonprayag.
Mule operators demanded that the government scrap the contact with the firm, saying outsourcing killed self-employment opportunities for local youths who had been managing mule operations till the 2013 disaster that hit the Kedarnath valley.
“We are being deprived of our share of works and business after a major share of the mule services was outsourced to the firm from Jammu Kashmir,” said a mule operator.
Kedarnath MLA Manoj Rawat said the government’s tough terms for bidding for mule operations kept locals out the tender process.
“A major share of mule services for the Kedarnath pilgrimage was well-managed by local youths in coordination with the district panchayat. The outsourcing of the service after the 2013 disaster rendered hundreds of local youths unemployed,” Rawat told Hindustan Times.
“Instead of keeping the bidding simple and accommodative for mule owners, its norms were so harsh that they could not participate in the tender process.”
The MLA said, “ The bidding process needed the participants to have a minimum ₹5 crore annual turnover, and firms must own no less than 5000 mule tags for punching animals’ ears. This was not possible for a local mule operator or even groups in the Kedarnath valley.”
The youths who earlier looked after mule services have been left unemployed, he said.
“We are small mule operators. Our business goes on till Chardham pilgrimage season, which is only for six months. The total strength of mules, owned by individual operators, was good enough to cater to the needs of the pilgrims, ” said Avtar Singh Negi, president of the Sonprayag Mule Operators’ Union.
“Our concerns and needs were not taken into account when state government decided to award the contract to the Jammu and Kashmir firm.”