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Amid tight security and a gap of two years, Amarnath Yatra is flagged off in Jammu

LG Manoj Sinha flagged off the first batch of Amarnath Yatra from Jammu base camp towards the holy cave in south Kashmir.

Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha on Wednesday flagged off the first batch of pilgrims from Jammu even as the 43-day long annual spiritual odyssey to the cave shrine of Lord Shiva over a steep rugged terrain in Kashmir's Pahalgam area is beginning on Thursday after a pause of two years caused by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021.

Amid chants of ‘Bam Bam Bhole’ and ‘Jai Barfani Baba ki’, the pilgrims left the Bhagwati Nagar base camp here in a convoy of vehicles amid tight security arrangements. Officials said 5,000 security personnel had been deployed in the city of temples to ensure safety of the devotees.

Authorities at Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), in close coordination with the Jammu and Kashmir administration, Police and the security agencies, have made all necessary arrangements, including an extensive security drill, for the devotees and others associated with the pilgrimage.

The union Home Minister Amit Shah, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha and Director General of the Jammu and Kashmir Police Dilbag Singh have taken a series of high- level meetings in the last four weeks to ensure the safety and security of the pilgrimage. Unusually this season, three guerrilla groups, widely believed to be the front organisations of Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, have given indications of their plans to target the pilgrimage. They view the projected numbers of 8 lakh pilgrims this year as India's attempt to showcase normalcy in Kashmir after withdrawal of the erstwhile State's special status and break up into the two Union Territories (UTs) in August 2019.

For the first time this year, Radio Frequency IDs (RFIDs) have been provided to all the registered yatris and authorised organisers. Besides, massive shelter sheds and hostels have been raised for the pilgrims at several places, including Jammu, Chanderkote, Srinagar, Nunwan Pahalgam and Baltal, en route to the holy cave shrine.

According to Chief Executive Officer SASB and Principal Secretary to the Lieutenant Governor, Nitishwar Kumar, DRDO-created hostels are ready at both the base camps of Nunwan (Pahalgam) and Baltal. "We have made arrangements for the pilgrims to stay. Langar, medical, communication and sanitation facilities for the pilgrims have been done here", Nitishwar Kumar tweeted on Tuesday. As the first batch of the pilgrims would reach the valley late on Wednesday, the yatra is scheduled to formally begin from Nunwan and Baltal in Kashmir on Thursday, 30 June. After 43 days it will conclude on Rakhsha Bandhan, on August 11.

For the devotees who are unable to physically reach Kashmir to participate in the yatra, authorities have created the facility of online darshan, pooja, havan and prasad. A fully-equipped 70-bed DRDO hospital has been set up at the base camp of Baltal for quality healthcare services to the pilgrims . The hospital, funded by the union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, will have X-ray and ultrasound facilities besides general and oxygenated wards, OPD, ICU, pharmacy and a laboratory. Besides, 109 Basic Life Support ambulances and 26 Advance Life Support critical care ambulances have been stationed at 55 locations en route Baltal and Chandanwari from Qazigund on the Jammu-Srinagar highway.

During a recent visit to the twin base camps, LG Manoj Sinha said this year special focus would be on cleanliness and the SASB's aim was a “Swachh Amarnath Yatra”. "We have made a provision of toilets all along the routes. We are very serious about the overall cleanliness. Swachh Bharat is not just a slogan but a commitment announced by the Prime Minister,” the LG said.

The routes on the highway to the two base camps, as also the 48-km track from Nunwan (Pahalgam) and 14-km track from Baltal (Sonmarg) to the holy cave, are now dotted with the columns and bunkers of the security forces. The J&K Police have revealed that the three terrorists killed in a recent encounter in Pahalgam forest area had planned an attack on the pilgrimage.

According to the official statistics, 36 small and big terror attacks happened on the pilgrims from 1990 to 2017 in which 53 devotees and others were killed. The worst terror strike on the yatra took place on 2 August 2000 when 31 people– 21 pilgrims, 7 local Muslims, 3 security forces personnel– were killed at Pahalgam. After a long pause, terrorists attacked a bus of the yatris returning from Baltal, at Botengo, on the outskirts of Anantnag township, on  July 10, 2017. Eight pilgrims were killed in that attack. 

However, there was no terror attack on the yatra in 2018 and 2019. In 2019, the pilgrimage operated for only one month of July in which 4 lakh devotees had darshan at the holy cave. The yatra was scuttled on July 31 as authorities, ahead of the abrogation of Article 370 on  August 5, advised all the pilgrims to immediately return and leave the valley.

As usual the food this year is being provided to the devotees by the authorised langar organizations– 38 of them on the Baltal side alone. Authorities have put in place shelter arrangements in view of the predictions of rain and snowfall over the two hilly terrains. The worst natural calamity occurred in 1996 when 200 pilgrims died due to heavy rainfall and snowfall and several others were taken ill. 

On Sunday, Prime Narendra Modi made a mention of the Amarnath Yatra in his weekly broadcast "Mann kī Baat". He said that the local residents were shouldering the responsibility of making the yatra a success with the same devotion that the pilgrims from all across the country had in participating in the spiritual odyssey. 

On Monday, LG Manoj Sinha said that the security forces were fully alert and all steps had been taken for peaceful and smooth conduct of the yatra. He said that the pilgrimage would also boost the economy in Jammu and Kashmir as lakhs of families suffered losses due to suspension of the yatra in the last two years.

“We need not to worry about security arrangements. Security forces are fully alert. We should have full faith in them. All steps have been taken for a smooth yatra,” Sinha told media persons after visiting Yatri Niwas at Bhagwati Nagar in Jammu.

Sinha, who visited the yatra base camps in the valley earlier this month, said that he saw many locals working for the yatra. The yatra, he said, was not only significant from a religious point of view but also from an economic point as it contributed a lot to the economy of Jammu and Kashmir.

The Army will remain deployed on the twin tracks from Nunwan Pahalgam and Baltal to the holy cave at an altitude of 3,880 metres (12,726 ft) while CRPF would control the Jammu-Srinagar highway. A heavy deployment of the Jammu and Kashmir Police has also been provided for security and logistic arrangements of the yatra.

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