Amarnath Yatra: State apathy towards Kashmiri concerns amidst constant picking at open sores

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Excerpts from the 212-page report “Amarnath Yatra: A Militarized Pilgrimage”, on the difficulties faced by the unorganized sector, which includes tent-owners, horse owners, porters, and shop owners, most of whom are Kashmiris:

Tent owners

Accommodation at the base camps and camps in the higher reaches is primarily provided by tent owners who come from adjoining areas of Pahalgam and Sonamarg. Permissions to pitch tents are given by the District Commissioner after police verification is conducted. Permissions are granted on an annual basis, with the understanding that those who regularly pitch their tents would be given preference. Each tent owner pays a fee of Rs. 100 to the SASB. The SASB allocates designated space in the camps for tents to be pitched.

Tents are not allowed to be pitched outside the camp boundaries. All camps have a rotation system, which is managed by an association of tent owners. This is not a registered association, nor does it conduct any business or activities outside organising the rotation system. The rates103 for the tents are fixed by the SASB, without engaging in any discussion with the tent owners.

When a yatri reaches a camp, they can either directly negotiate with a tent owner or approach the association. In case the association is approached, tents are allocated on rotation system, the fixed rate is charged and money is paid to them, and they in turn disburse the money to the relevant tent owner.

Since the cap on the number of yatris who can undertake the Yatra has been restricted to 7500 per day from each route, there has been no review of the number of tent permits issued. This has meant that there are more tents than yatris. Often yatris take advantage of the excess supply and negotiate for rates lower than SASB determined rates.

Tent owners, who believe that the prescribed rates are themselves inadequate, and would rather not negotiate for a lower rate, are often forced to do so since they would rather earn some money instead of nothing at all.

Tent owners face several challenges at different levels, right from the time of permits being issued to setting up of tents and during the Yatra itself. The tent owners need to provide police verification certificates issued by the police station under whose jurisdiction their village falls.

Several tent owners feel intimidated by this since they have to prove that they are not a threat to the Yatra, despite it being in their own region, while the yatris who come from outside the region are not subject to such a verification. Another grievance of the tent owners is that they are not allowed to pitch their tents well in advance of the Yatra’s commencement, and are allowed to reach the camp sites only 4 days prior to the start of the Yatra.

Screen shot 2018-07-30 at 9.24.13 AMAccording to the tent owners, this does not give them enough time to set up the place before the Yatris start arriving. They also feel that if the army is allowed to go 15 days in advance, they should also be allowed to do so, which would give them the time to get up tents and be prepared by the time the first batch of yatris start arriving.

The other major grievance is that the formation of the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) has hit the potential income that the tent owners could make during the Yatra, since, earlier they used to provide necessities like tent, firewood as well as water. With the SASB taking responsibility of the basic amenities, the potential earnings of the tent owners have been curtailed.

Horse owners, dandi-walas and porters

The Yatra terrain being a difficult one, several people opt to hire a horse or palanquin (locally referred to as dandi) for travel on the route. Several others who prefer to walk, hire porters (locally referred to as pithoos) to carry their luggage.

As in the case of tents, permits are issued for all three groups of people. However, the SASB views these groups as labour and accordingly permits are issued by the Department of Labour.

In the case of horses, an additional document is to be obtained from the Directorate of Animal Husbandry since only those horses registered with the Directorate are allowed to operate during the Yatra. The horses are assessed by staff of the Directorate of Animal Husbandry who certify that the horse is fit to carry people / materials on the Yatra route.

According to an RTI response from the Department of Labour 9613 horse owners 7954 dandi-wallas and 5999 porters have received licenses / permits in 2015.107 However, according to the Directorate of Animal Husbandry, 11760 horses had been registered in 2015.

Again, as in the case of tents, rates for hiring of horses, dandies and porters is fixed by the SASB without any consultation with the people involved in these activities.108 As in the case of tents, yatris tend to bargain rates with the horse owners as well, reducing their earnings.

The horse owners of Pahalgam believed that they did not benefit too much from the Yatra since the rates fixed do not allow for too much profit over and above the expenditure incurred on feeding the horse and for accommodation and food for the owners. There are no facilities provided for the horse owners, dandi-walas and porters along the route.

Screen shot 2018-07-30 at 8.33.00 AMDepartment of Labour has constructed some sheds in the camps in the upper reaches, which were open for use by these three groups. However, for the past few years, the armed forces have occupied these spaces and the horse owners, dandi-walas and porters are left to their own means to find shelter and food. They often stay in the shops in the camps by paying an amount of Rs 50-60 per night.

The horse owners of Pahalgam say that they are able to retain only about 10% of their total income since the rest is spent on living expenses for themselves and the horses. Horses are insured for a sum of Rs 30,000 in case of death, or in case of accident, the amount paid to the horse owner is determined based on extent and nature of injury.

In 2014 Rs 20.65 lakhs was paid to 95 owners who lost their horses. This averages to Rs 21,736 per person assuming all got the same amount. However, the horse owners believe that this amount is inadequate since purchasing a horse costs a lot more. “The Post Yatra Review, 2014” suggested that there is a need for a fodder store at Sheshnag, upgradation of the animal husbandry clinic at Chandanwari and the setting up of a clinic at the cave.

For the horse owners of Pahalgam, the Yatra is a liability also from the perspective of tourism. Horse rides are a big highlight of tourism in Pahalgam since there are established and well known horse tracks in and around Pahalgam. Since the number of tourists drops during the Yatra, they are unable to earn from tourism, which they say brings them greater profits in comparison to the Yatra.

Also, only 5% of yatris from the Pahalgam route opt to go sight seeing and hire horses for the same. According to the horse owners, the SASB was a cause for their decreasing income as earlier they used to negotiate rates directly with the yatris, but are now forced to accept the SASB mandated rates. Increasingly, the Pahalgam horse owners, who were one of the first to offer this service for the Yatra, are choosing not to operate. Gujjars from the plains who used to bring livestock to graze in the mountains in the summers, are now getting into the hire of horses for the Yatra.

Taxi Owners

In Pahalgam, taxis are used by yatris to travel from the Nunwan camp to Chandanwari (a distance of about 18 kms), from where the Yatra is undertaken by foot. About 150-175 people own the 300 taxis in Pahalgam. These taxis are primarily used by tourists and locals, which are then put to use during the Yatra period. The rate that has been fixed for dropping yatris from Nunwan to Chandanwari is Rs 150.

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However, the taxi drivers in Pahalgam shared that they even ply yatris for Rs 100 since several of them are poor and cannot afford to pay the pre-determined rate of Rs. 150. The approximately 5000 sadhus who go on the Yatra are not charged at all. The taxi owners are irked that SASB takes the credit for ensuring that the sadhus undertake the Yatra without incurring any costs and do not reveal their role in this.

As in the case of the other groups within the unorganised sector, rates are fixed by the SASB without any consultation with the people. This has meant that providing services in the Yatra is not too profitable.

For example it costs Rs 400,000 to buy a Maruti van of which the owner puts in half the amount and takes a loan for the remaining Rs 200,000 from non-banking financial markets, since according to some taxi owners, getting a loan from banks is a challenge, especially to the working class. The loan is then repaid at a 12% rate of interest, which works out to approximately Rs. 400 per day.

This is the minimum that the taxi owner needs to earn just to be able to keep his taxi. What he earns over this is his income for the day on which their families survive. Levels of corruption are very high. It is rare that a taxi owner is able to get a vehicle permit without bribing the officials, and is often possible only if the taxi owner knows someone in the relevant department.

Therefore, while the permit itself costs Rs 5,000, the taxi owners end up paying Rs 40-50,000 for the same. What is worse is that the permits need to be renewed annually, which means the taxi owners incur a high recurring expense.

Screen shot 2018-07-30 at 9.33.41 AMIssues Faced by the unorganised labour in the Amarnath Yatra

The taxi drivers share that there is a lot of animosity among the Kashmiris who provide services during the Yatra. They attribute this to the attitude of the Board. One example they quote is the character certificates and other documents they must provide to prove to the SASB that they are not on the wrong side of the law. Yatris observe the attitude of the state actors towards Kashmiris who provide services, and conclude that Kashmiris cannot be trusted.

Fixing of rates for these services are also not done in consultation with people providing the service, who believe that the rate fixed is inadequate. Since the formation of the SASB, the unorganised labour has been unable to negotiate for better rates with the yatris. The rates are publicised through hoardings right from Khanabal.

However, the yatris take this to be the upper limit that needs to be paid and often bargain for fares lower than the prescribed amount and often succeed since the number of service providers far exceeds the demand.

From an interview with Rajan Gupta, SABLO, it appears that the langar organisations also see the rates as the maximum chargeable. Since yatris get much of their information from langar organisations, there is a need for SASB to communicate accurate information to the yatris. While regulation is necessary, the SASB needs to ensure that interests of the unorganised labour, which offers basic services to the yatris is not compromised.

There is a constant undercurrent, especially between the tent and horse owners on the one side and langar organisations on the other. Despite being disallowed, langar owners often allow yatris to stay in their tents for the night. This eats into the earnings of the tent owners. Often the langar organisations negotiate rates with horse owners on behalf of the yatris.

This also takes away from the potential earnings of the horse owners. During an interview Preet Pal Singh, SASB said that “the nature of conflict between the two groups is economic in nature, but which takes on communal hues during a confrontation.”

Several yatris come with preconceived notions about Kashmir and Kashmiris, given that this has been a contested issue not only since independence and partition, but even before that. The yatris who are also witnessing these encounters internalise the animosity.

Preet Pal Singh, SASB in a debate says, “Basically, the entire Yatra is not possible without the support of people of Kashmir and especially people of Ganderbal and Anantnag districts. There are no two opinions about it. Then there are porters, horse owners and palkhiwalas. They are the people who are making the Yatra successful.”

Yet, whose interests is the Yatra serving? And if the SASB truly views people of Kashmir as the cause of the success of the Yatra, why is there — at best — state apathy towards their concerns, and — at worst — the constant picking at still open sores?

Click HERE to download full report

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