The death of 28 people during the ongoing Amarnath Yatra could be because of fake health certificates procured by the devotees who are also skipping an acclimatisation regimen crucial to undertaking the grueling pilgrimage, health officials have said.
Every year, thousands of Hindus undertake the 58-day yatra between July and August to pay obeisance at the shrine dedicated to Shiva, located at an altitude of 11,998 feet in the Himalayas.
Officials said that the 28 deaths, of people between 30 and 40 years, have been recorded within the first 25 days at altitudes above 10,000 feet. All deaths were caused by myocardial infarction, commonly known as heart attack, health officials added.
Officials also pointed out that most pilgrims prefer to take the shorter Baltal route which involves a day-long 14-km trek through a steep gradient, leaving them little time to get used to the conditions when oxygen becomes sparse in the high altitudes.
Along the longer Pahalgam route, which is 43 km, devotees have to spend two nights on the road before reaching the cave which houses the Shiva lingam in central Kashmir's Ganderbal district.
"I have given my recommendations based on clinical research twice to the authorities. Unfortunately, pilgrims are not adhering to the Himalayan mountaineering guidelines," said Nasir Shams, a well-known physician with the state medical department.
"It is a 24-hour crash tourism from zero feet to 10,000 feet in 24 hours and back, causing irreversible damage to the human body irrespective of the age," he said.
Dr Malik Basheer, the health directorate's nodal officer for the annual yatra in Kashmir, also admitted that visitors were not following the acclimatisation regimen for trekking.
"The administration tries its best to halt pilgrims near the Nunwan and Manigam (base camps) but still there are many who don't go for the acclimatisation," he said.
Basheer added that the administration has set up 29 health centres on both the routes. "We provide emergency aid, which include mobile oxygen cylinders. In most cases, deaths were instant," Basheer said.
Around 80 mobile cylinders are available on the twin routes in north and south Kashmir.
Shabir Ahmad, chief medical officer on the Baltal route, said the mandatory fitness certificates could be fake.
"I doubt the screening tests of these pilgrims. It seems people with diabetes, hypertension and lungs problems are taking the pilgrimage," Ahmad said.
Out of 28 deaths, as many as 22 cases were registered at the Baltal base camp.
"In higher altitudes, death is quick and painless. Most patients even fail to realise their health condition," said Dr Ahmad.
Health officials added that around 70 pilgrims have been resuscitated so far on the Baltal route.
Besides the 28 deaths, three people including two children were killed after a cloudburst struck near the base camp along the Baltal route on Friday night.