Srinagar: In a move that is likely to snowball into a fresh political controversy in Jammu and Kashmir, Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) has extended the period of Amarnath pilgrimage from 39 to 55 days starting this year. The decision, the Board said, has been taken in view of the “safety and security” of the pilgrims. The decision was arrived at by the board in a three-hour meeting in New Delhi chaired by J&K Governor NN Vohra, who is also the Chairman of the SASB. The meeting was attended by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan, Justice (Retd.) GD Sharma, Pandit Bhajan Sopori, Vijay Dhar and Dr. (Prof.) Ved Kumari Ghai, all members of the Board.
Even though the duration had been increased from 15 days to two months by the former J&K Governor S K Sinha in 2004, a development which in no small measure contributed to the build-up to 2008 Amarnath unrest, the present governor N N Vohra in recent years had truncated the period to 39 days, which also played to opposition from Hindu groups across the country.
The board has mentioned no clear-cut reason for the extension of the period except that it is for the “safety and security” of the yatris. The authorities, however, have decided that the number of yatris to be allowed to visit the holy cave shrine each day will not exceed 7500 pilgrims on either of the two routes leading to the spot.
“Keeping in view that it would not be possible, as directed by the Supreme Court, to upgrade the walking tracks along both the routes in the Yatra area before the commencement of this year’s Yatra, the Board decided that 7,500 yatris, excluding yatris who travel by helicopters from Baltal and Pahalgam to Panjtarni, would be allowed to register for the pilgrimage on per day per route basis,” the SASB statement said.
The Board also discussed the recommendations of National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) regarding the upper and lower age limit of the pilgrims who may be allowed to undertake the pilgrimage. According to these recommendations, no child under the age of 11 years, no person above the age of 80 years and no pregnant lady with more than six weeks pregnancy should be allowed to undertake the pilgrimage. The members also examined Nitesh K Sen Gupta Committee report on the Amarnath yatra which has recommended that no person under the age of 15 years and no person above the age of 65 years should ordinarily be encouraged to undertake the pilgrimage. The SASB, however, has now decided that no one below the age of 13 years or above the age of 75 years and no pregnant lady with more than six weeks pregnancy would be allowed to undertake the yatra.