Taking cognizance of the death of 67 Amarnath pilgrims in the first 17 days of the Yatra this year, the Supreme Court has issued notices to the Centre and the Jammu and Kashmir government as well as the head of the Amarnath Shrine Board asking them to explain the lack of proper medical and other facilities to the pilgrims.
A bench of justices BS Chauhan and Swantanter Kumar asked the Union Home Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests Secretary, Jammu and Kashmir chief secretary and chairperson of the Amarnathji Shrine Board to appear before it in a week to answer questions on the unusually high number of casualties among the Amarnath pilgrims.
While 105 people died during the 45-day yatra last year, 67 yatris have lost their lives in the first 17 days this year.
“All these reports clearly showed disregard to the human life. Lack of facilities at the shrine and on the paths leading to the shrine is evident from all the aforestated articles and the photographs published therein,” the bench said.
“In our considered view, the pilgrims have a constitutional right under Articles 21 (right to life) and 19(1)(d) to move freely throughout the territory of India, free of fear, with dignity and safety and to ensure enforcement of such right is the primary obligation of the State and the Central governments,” the bench said.
The bench, which took suo motu cognizance of reports published in the Hindustan Times and some other newspapers about deaths of pilgrims, said, “With the increase in the number of pilgrims coupled with the poor management, it appears that there was a sharp increase in the casualty rate.”
“It is expected of a government and the concerned authorities to devote more attention and provide appropriate amenities and facilities to protect the life of the individuals, the environment as well as ensure to make the yatra effective and successful, preferably without any human casualty.
“The authorities cannot shirk their responsibility of providing minimum essential facilities including medical assistance, roads and other necessary infrastructure. Visit of lacks of people to the State of Jammu & Kashmir generates revenue for the State, in fact, for the residents of that State and add to the need for better tourism facilities. The authorities are also expected to better equip the Forces posted at the holy cave, base points and en route to the holy cave,” the SC said.
“Nearly 22,000 pilgrims visited the shrine daily while the limit, as per the administration itself, was reported to be 3,400 per day only. It is again a matter of great regret that obviously because of lack of proper aid and amenities, the death toll had gone upto 85 on 21st July, 2011,” it said quoting a newspaper report.
“This Court has repeatedly held that in terms of Article 21 of the Constitution of India, a person has a right to live with dignity and not be subjected to inhuman treatment, particularly in such places where large number of people are bound to visit because of their faith.
“It can also be hardly disputed that huge revenue is generated as a result of visit of large number of pilgrims to the Holy Cave. The Amarnath Shrine Board receives huge amount of money not only by way of offerings but also from the charges/fee it takes from the pony-owners, palkiwallahs as well as the helicopter services available between Baltal and Panchtarni,” it said.
“It is also evident that there is a complete lack of adequate essential amenities and facilities for the yatris who come to pay their tribute at the 'Holy Cave at Amarnath'. Lack of medical facilities and limitations of the officers/officials of the Forces are some other facets which need to be considered by the concerned authorities, it added.
Terming it “a very sensitive place from the environmental point of view” the SC said the government was duty-bound to control pollution.
“Right to life is enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution which embodies in itself the right to live with dignity. The State is not only expected but is under a constitutional command to treat every citizen with human dignity and ensure equal treatment to all. In our considered view and as demonstrated by these newspaper reports, inhuman, unsafe and undesirable conditions are prevailing at the base camps and en route to the Holy Cave.
“The yatris do have a right and the State is under constitutional obligation to provide safe passages, proper medical aid, appropriate arrangement and at least some shelter to the thousands of yatris visiting the holy cave every day,” the SC said.
The photographs also showed that hardly any amenities were available for the yatris in and around the holy cave, though thousands of people who throng the holy cave had to wait for hours and days for darshan, it added.
“They (authorities) are also expected to make appropriate arrangements for darshans at the Holy Cave so as to avoid health hazards and injuries, provide proper paths and one-way system passages to the pilgrims to the Holy Cave,” the bench emphasised.
Questions Supreme Court asked govt:
* Whether proper medical/emergency facilities exist to prevent human casualties?
* What steps have been taken to protect the environment in that area?
* What essential amenities provided at the base camps and en route to the Holy Cave?
* What measures taken/methods adopted for collection and disposal of the waste?
* What facilities/equipment available, particularly for protecting or treating conditions such as dyspnoea, cardiac arrest and other heart related problems?
* What is the cause for such high casualty rate and whether there exists the required medical equipment to ensure that in future such casualties can be avoided?
* What means available with authorities on the ground for handling such huge crowd?
* Why seven times the requisite number of people coming to visit the cave per day is being permitted and if so, whether there is requisite infrastructure at the site for handling such huge crowd?