Twenty-eight pilgrim deaths, mostly of those in their 30s and 40s, in the first 25 days of the 58-day Amarnath Yatra, have cast a light on the poor acclimatisation regimen and fake health certificates being issued.
According to an assessment by the Kashmir health services department, all the deaths happened in the higher altitudes. No deaths were reported at the base camps of Nunwan, at 2,130 metres (6,988 feet), in south Kashmir, and Baltalat 2,743 metres (8,999 feet) in north Kashmir.
Dr Malik Basheer, nodal officer, directorate of health, for the yatra, admitted all 28 deaths happened above 3,500 metres (10,000 feet). “It seems the acclimatisation regimen for trekking is not being followed. The administration tries its best to halt pilgrims near Nunwan and Manigam, but still there are many who don’t undergo any acclimatisation,” he said.
Pilgrims have died in spite of the presence of 29 health centre along both the routes — around 80 mobile cylinders are also available.“We provide emergency aid, which includes mobile oxygen cylinders. But in most of the cases, deaths were instant,” said Dr Basheer.
All deaths were due to myocardial infarctions, commonly known as heart attacks. “I doubt the screening tests of these pilgrims. They come with fake certificates. It seems people with diabetes, hypertension and lungs problems are undertaking the pilgrimage,” said Dr Shabir Ahmad, chief medical officer on the Baltal route.
Of the 28 reported deaths, 22 cases were registered with the Baltal base camp that is now also prone to cloudbursts.
Most pilgrims prefer this route, 14 kilometres long and located at a height of 3,657 metres (11,998 feet), as it can be completed in just a day and is the shortest route. It is not a traditional route, having opened in 1999.
“It is difficult to tell how many died on this route per se since this is the shortest and the most deaths are registered here. However, the fact remains that 22 deaths were registered on this route,” said Dr Ahmad.
But the Yatra’s toughest part lies in south Kashmir, near the Mahagunas Pass at an altitude of 4,276 metres (14,028 feet). “In higher altitudes, death is painless. Most patients fail to even complain about their chest pain,” explained Dr Ahmad.
The Pahalgam route, which is 43 kilometres long, is the traditional route. Being the longest, it enables pilgrims to camp outside for two nights before the ‘darshan’ at the cave. Most pilgrims first acclimatise at Nunwan and then at Sheshnag (11,730 feet) before proceeding further on the pilgrimage.
On the other hand, pilgrims from the Baltal route are done in a single day. “We have been able to resuscitate and save 70 pilgrims so far on the Baltal route,” said Dr Ahmad.
Dr Nasir Shams, a physician with the state medical department, said, “I have given recommendations, based on clinical research, twice to the authorities. Unfortunately, pilgrims don’t adhere to the Himalayan mountaineering guidelines. It is a case of crash tourism, from zero feet to 10,000 feet in 24 hours and back, which causes irreversible damage to the human body irrespective of age.”