The other day the local Hindi daily, Daink Bhaskar, published a fairly big picture – bigger than half a page – of the Baltal Valley in Kashmir. Baltal comes into prominence every year around this time as the Amarnath Yatra commences. This year it commenced on 1st July. Photographs have already appeared in the newspapers of ponies loaded with stores and provisions laboring uphill.
Baltal is one of the two options to approach the Amarnath Cave; the other, of course, is the traditional and age old Pahalgam-Chnadanwari route that, if I remember, is 24 miles in length and can be covered in three stages, each roughly eight miles apart. Baltal to Amarnath is a shorter route – of around only 6 or 7 miles. This route was opened a few years ago and has become very popular since it is shorter, though arduous, than the other route from Pahalgam. Those who are affluent can take a short hop in a helicopter to fulfill their needs of the faith.
The photograph that appeared in Dainik Bhaskar, however, broke my heart. What it showed was a sprawling tented settlement over what was once an alluring green grassy meadow. Obviously trees have been cut down for facility of movements of buses, taxis, private vehicles as also horses and ponies. Then of course there are flying horses like helicopters which have to land and need a substantial clear and levelled space for the purpose. The Valley was narrow with mountains on practically all sides covered with pines. All that seems to have gone!
Fifty years ago it was not so. I remember I came across Baltal Valley while travelling to Ladakh in 1968 in an Army jeep that was part of a huge convoy. The jeep stopped on the Srinagar-Leh highway as my senior, a telecom engineer had some checking job to be done at the small Signals outfit that was stationed here at Baltal. As I got off the jeep and saw the incredibly beautiful little valley with green meadows and pine-covered hills I was captivated by it. The narrow valley was surrounded by tall mountains; some even had snow on their peaks. It was a delightful sight.
My Director and I walked out into the Valley. Three men used to man the Signals unit and they explained to the Director the technicalities of the Unit and all that they required from the Indian Telegraphs. While having tea with them we came to know that Amarnath Cave was only about 8 miles away from this spot. But the climb was difficult and only the toughest of the Army lot have been able to go up to the shrine and return. The path was unchartered and treacherous at many places with crevices of unknown depths. There was a bungalow up there on one of the small hillocks where, the Army men said, Indira Gandhi was reported to have honeymooned way back in 1940s.
It must have been awfully beautiful place when Indira Gandhi came all the way here to have some quiet time for a newly-wedded life. There would have been very little disturbance. Surely there wouldn’t have been the groaning of trucks as they huffed and puffed their way up the mountain to the Zoji La pass like we saw and heard. Tranquil is what it must have been all the way.
The photograph that appeared in the newspaper was very distressing. I was distressed more when I checked Baltal out on the internet. There were images of tents and a mass of humanity that was supposed to be stabled in them, scores of vehicles, ponies and horses. Grass was notably absent from the ground. The meadow was simply gone. This was total destruction of a beautiful, thriving valley with greenery all around. This is the kind of environmental destruction that is wrought by our unchecked and unbridled religious tourism.
Time was when pilgrims used to come only in thousands. Now they come in hundreds of thousands. What is more, the Shrine Board that looks after the pilgrims and makes arrangements for their stay, etc. and takes care of the Amarnath shrine, invites more and more pilgrims every year. No gainsaying the fact that greater the numbers more severe will be the environmental degradation. But none cares although taking care of the environment is one of the imperatives of the government.
This is happening all around the country – whether it is Kashmir or Kerala. The grip of the religion that was pretty loose in our case is slowly tightening. That may not be a bad thing by itself but that should not be at the cost of Nature. We destroy the environment at our own peril. Already the signs of the deteriorating environment have started presenting themselves in our country as also elsewhere. Unless we cry a halt to it immediately we put at risk the very existence of life on this beautiful and benign planet of ours. More importantly, religious activism will not be able to keep us safe and secure.