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India's top court orders roads for pilgrims through fragile territory

The ruling, which worries environmentalists and Muslim separatists alike, followed a summer in which 86 pilgrims died making the trek to the Amarnath cave, one of the holiest sites in Hinduism.

By Fahad ShahContributor / October 26, 2012

A Kashmiri snack seller walks past a closed market area during a strike in Srinagar, India, Sept. 4. Separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani, a top Kashmiri separatist leader, called for a one-day shutdown against any attempt to make permanent roads up to the Hindu shrine of Amarnath, in south Kashmir.

Mukhtar Khan/AP/File

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Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir

The Indian Supreme Court is directing the government of the disputed region of Kashmir to construct a paved road through miles of a delicate mountain ecosystem in order to ensure the safety of throngs of Hindu pilgrims.

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The court's ruling in August followed a summer in which 86 pilgrims died making the trek to the Amarnath cave, one of the holiest sites in Hinduism. An ice stalagmite forms inside the cave, located high up at 12,755 feet, that Hindus worship for its connection to the god Shiva. Health authorities blame the high altitude and cardiac arrest as the main reasons for pilgrim deaths.

Yet, the pilgrims remain undaunted with their numbers exploding in recent years, from fewer than 20,000 in 1980 to more than 600,000 this year. The influx has affected the ecology around the cave as well as the tourist towns of Pahalgam and Sonamarg. The surrounding glacier of Kolahoi has shrunk by just over a square mile, helped along by cracking created by the vibration of helicopters used to transport pilgrims. A paved road, say environmentalists, would attract yet more people, bringing further disruption to wildlife and strain on water sources.

The government has struggled to decide on a course of action because the pilgrimage has become a controversial political symbol for both Indian Hindus and Kashmiri Muslims. In 2008, mass protests erupted in the mostly-Muslim Kashmir Valley after a large patch of local land was handed over to a Shrine Board linked to the Indian-backed state government. More than 80 people were killed by Indian forces during the months of protests. 

A land grab?

Parvez Imroz, a prominent human rights lawyer, says that the state government wanted to seize the land and start construction in 2008 but backed off after protests mounted. Now the court ruling, he argues, is giving them political cover to move ahead with the construction of road and occupying more land.

“The construction will have disastrous implications. In other religious sites, state and federal government have been very sensitive for ecology. But here they don’t,” says Mr. Imroz.

A study done by glaciologist Shakil Ramsoo called Climate Change, Glacial Retreat, and Livelihoods found that the Kolahoi glacier is shrinking 0.03 square miles a year because of the climate change and other factors such as the mass visits to Pahalgam.

“The mass influx of tourists and pilgrims can be another reason for playing havoc to the glacier. It is irrespective of the religion and region that around 1.8 million people who visit Pahalgam every year are degrading its ecology,” says Professor Shakil Ramsoo, HOD, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Kashmir.

Another report on Pahalgam had found that the piles of refuse left by pilgrims are contaminating local water sources, leading to health problems for local residents.

Court rules for roads

In its ruling, the court said that the “government cannot escape its obligation to provide minimum essential facilities including roads as an approach to the holy cave.”

The Advocate General of the state had said the government has accepted the court's decision "in principle" and is drawing up a work plan for next year's pilgrimage that it will submit to the court next month.

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