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J&K HC asks SASB to urgently decide on holding Amarnath yatra in view of COVID-19

Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) was directed by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court to take an urgent decision on holding the annual pilgrimage this year in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, while ensuring that the right to health of every person is at the highest pedestal.
Passing an order on a ‘Court on its Own Motion’, a division bench headed by Chief Justice Gita Mittal directed the SASB headed by the Lt Governor to inform the court about the decision through its amicus curiae Monika Kohli .
The pilgrimage is held annually for 45 days and ends on “Raksha Bandhan” with the ‘Charri Mubarak’ (holy mace) reaching the abode of Lord Shiva in the South Kashmir Himalyan cave located at an altitude of 3,888 metres.
The court quoted a submission made by Kohli who urged that efforts of the authorities to make arrangements for the pilgrimage must have been impeded on account of the COVID-19 containment.
Kohli pointed out about a government report which highlighted the pandemic situation, the physical condition of the route and said if these were not addressed would lead “to devastating consequences”.
The counsels submitted that the overburdened fragile state of healthcare facilities in the Union Territory would not be able to cope with the additional pressures on account of the pilgrims coming into Jammu and Kashmir.
The 23-page order issued by the bench also comprising Justice Sanjay Dhar directed the Jammu and Kashmir administration to place the July 10 status report on holding Amarnath Yatra this year and other relevant material before the SASB for its consideration.
“The Shri Amarnath Shrine Board and the respondents (JK government) shall urgently take all decisions regarding the yatra while complying” with the order of the Supreme Court of July 13″ and the several concerns pointed out by the amicus curiae and the petitioner before the court.
The court also directed that while taking a final call they should ensure compliance of all healthcare protocols, standard operating protocols notified by the Centre as well as by the Union Territory, and guided by the principle laid down by the apex court of India that the right to health of every person has to be placed at the highest pedestal.
The decision should also address concerns of the health of security personnel, healthcare personnel, priests, the pilgrims and of the officials who would be involved in the arrangements and conduct of the yatra, besides the residents of Jammu and Kashmir.
While making the decision, the board shall ensure consideration of the welfare and support of all people, especially members of the communities which provide porterage/ pithoos, palkis, mules and horses and who provide services during the pilgrimage.
Consideration would also need to be accorded to the welfare of the animals and measures needed for the same.
The court also took note of the fact that the administration of the union territory had not provided details about how the quarantine and social distancing would be maintained during the pilgrimage.
In its July 10 status report, the counsel representing the UT administration had said there was a serious concern about the stress on the medical system because of the pilgrimage as nine out of 10 districts in Kashmir are red zones and the medical system is fully stretched in handling the challenge.
No doctors would be available from outside Jammu and Kashmir for the pilgrimage this year due to the pandamic.
“Isolation facilities will have to be created to ensure any COVID-19 challenges are addressed on emergent basis at the holy cave and the base camp itself which is very challenging.
“Also, COVID and high altitude sickness symptoms are quite similar and all cases will have to be treated as deemed COVID positive in case of an emergency. Further, special arrangements will have to be made for handling bodies,” the report had said.
The status report said that it was equally pertinent to place on record, the data and statistical record of the Union Territory with regard to coronavirus cases and that the entire administrative machinery with its healthcare personnel are involved in the fight against the pandemic.
The court observed that the UT administration was clearly unable to provide the requisite healthcare, with no means to isolate suspected or infected COVID-19 cases during the pilgrimage or at the cave, and certainly have no means of evacuation and no method of removal of a body.
In the order, the court also pointed out the submission made by Kohli regarding an April 22 order passed by the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board cancelling the pilgrimage which was subsequently recalled.
It appears that the pilgrimage was cancelled because there were 77 hot spots or red zones in Kashmir along with the route through which the yatra passes, Kohli said, and also informed the court that langars, camp establishments and medical facilities were not set up and even snow clearance was not complete.

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