Amarnath: Truth and Controversy
by Nancy Kaul on 21 Aug 2008 0 Comment

The People’s Democratic Party started a shrill cacophony against the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board and the land transfer for making arrangements for pilgrims for the duration of the yatra, and finally withdrew from the Government on the same pretext. The then Chief Minister, Mr. Ghulam Nabi Azad, on 25 June 2008 addressed a Press conference in Srinagar to clarify issues pertaining to the controversy over the land transfer.


The State Government issued and circulated a background note pertaining to the diversion of forest land to the Shrine Board. The note gives an insight into the issue which has now assumed far greater proportions. It mentions the need to make arrangements for yatris to the Amarnath cave as the weather was inclement most of the time and resulted in human tragedy:- “ …it was necessary to build sufficiently strong structures en route the Holy Shrine which would withstand the fury of the elements if the weather turned hostile during the yatra. The need for these structures was reinforced in 1996 when very large number pilgrims died during a blizzard lasting four days…”


The note states that in order to institutionalize the arrangements for the smooth conduct and management of the pilgrimage to the Holy Shrine, the State Legislature passed the Jammu and Kashmir Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Act 2000. The Bill was piloted by the Tourism Department pursuant to the cabinet decision No. 182/16 dated 10/10/2000. The Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Board Act received assent of the Governor on 14 November 2000. The act was enforced vide notification SRO 54 dated 12/2/2001.


“A project report was received by the State Government in the Forest Department dated 15/10/2004 from CEO Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Board requesting for the transfer of 3642 canals of land for making 7 halting places on the Baltal Amarnath Ji Shrine and the Chandanwari Amaranth Ji Shrine routes.”


The matter was examined in the Forest Department at various levels and the case submitted to the Minister concerned by the Principal Secretary, Forest Department, recommending the proposal be accepted. “The Forest Department issued a government order no. 148-FST of 2005 dated 29/3/2005 granting permission to the Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Board for using the forest land for constructing pre-fabricated structures for Yatris in compartments no. 21AC, 6/AC, 8/AC of Lidder Forest Division and compartment No. 62 of the Sindh forest divisions.”


The Chief Conservator of Forests, Kashmir, subsequently sought certain clarifications from Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, J&K, as to whether the land was to be allowed to be used by the Shrine Board free of cost or on royalty basis. This started the process of re-examination of the entire case of approval of the land to be granted to the board for making facilities for the yatris.


Even as these events were unfolding, the Jammu & Kashmir High Court ordered on 15/4/2005 that the, “State shall, immediately permit the use of Forest land by the Board if not already allowed…” The Government appealed to a Division Bench, but the High Court confirmed the previous ruling of allotment of land to the Board, directing that, “the land to be allotted to the Board would be only for the purpose of the user and would remain limited to the duration of the yatra.”


The re-examination of the case at the behest of the Principal Chief Conservator,  J&K, lead to the withdrawal of order 148FST of 2005 dated 24/3/2005 by the Ministry of Forest. The Chief Secretary also sought the opinion of the General Administration Department (GAD) on the issue which also opined that the “Minister of Forests was not advised properly and his observations were not considered before issuing the Government orders granting permission for using the Forest land for non- forestry purposes.”


Meanwhile, the then Governor sent a message to the Council of Ministers dated 25/5/2005 under section 44(C) of the constitution of Jammu & Kashmir, urging it to reconsider the decision to withdraw the Government order. The State Cabinet considered the same in it’s meeting on 7/6/2005 and desired that the copy of reference from the Hon’ble Governor and the memorandum of the Chief Minister be circulated among all Cabinet Ministers and the matter be discussed in the next cabinet meeting.


The correspondence between the Board and the Principal Chief Conservator continued and in the meantime land was jointly surveyed to assess the requirement of land on the Baltal axis in the first instance. As a result of this survey 39.88 hectares was recommended for diverting for non-forestry purpose and use of the Board. The same matter came up before the Advisory Committee which met on 12/5/2005. The opinion of the Chief Wildlife Warden was also taken, and after an on-the-spot inspection on 27/5/2005, he opined that the proposed complex “not seem to have any significant impact on the ecology of the Thajwas Wildlife Sanctuary.”


Thereafter, the Advisory Committee cleared the diversion of the requisitioned forest land to the Board on the standard terms and conditions of the Government. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court of India had directed all cases where clearance was given by the Forest Advisory Committee to be placed before the apex court for approval. The Jammu & Kashmir Law Department said that as the State has its own Forest Act as well as Forest Conservation Act, the Supreme Court ruling has no implication for the State as subject of Forest continues to be in the State List.


After incorporating the views of the State Law Department and after the approval of the Minister for Forests on 17/7/2007, the Department referred it to GAD to place before the Cabinet. The State Cabinet on 20/5/2008 vide its decision no. 94/7, approved the proposal of land transfer to the Shri Amaranth Ji Shrine Board.


All Government bodies were aware of each aspect of the land transfer, especially at Baltal, as the land there has traditionally been used for the Amarnath Yatra every year. The yatri camp at Baltal has always been on Forest land and not much will change if it is diverted to the Board for making better arrangements. Yet there are many questions that have risen out of this, the most significant being the stand of PDP which choose the issue to bring down its own government.


The Forest Minister, the Law Minister and the Deputy Chief Minister – all belonging to the PDP – have always been in the decision-making loop regarding land diversion. Indeed, it could not have taken place without their approval.


They must now explain why they acted in this manner. Why did the State Congress and its Central bosses surrender to the dictates of the PDP and the separatist Hurriyat and sundry mischief-makers in the Valley? The formal explanation is that the PDP pulled down the government to appeal to its communal constituency in the Valley and out-score the National Conference in competitive communalism, a lot more remains hidden behind the veil. These truths should now be brought out in to the public domain.

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