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Amarnath Yatra begins amid tight security

To ensure safety of pilgrims and their convoy, barcoded slips to RFID tags are being given besides restricting movement of unregistered vehicles on Yatra routes, reports Rahul Tripathi.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Jul 01, 2019, 11.55 AM IST
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Amarnath yatra begins today under heavy security
Amarnath yatra begins today under heavy security
It’s been exactly two years since Sheikh Saleem Gafoor, the 40-year-old bus driver from Valsad in Gujrat whose alertness saved lives of 52 Amarnath Yatra pilgrims in 2017, visited the Kashmir Valley. The annual pilgrimage is set to begin from July 1 and there is only one bus from Valsad, carrying over 50 pilgrims, coming to the holy shrine, this time. Last year, there were none and in 2017, the year when the attack took place, there were six buses carrying over 400 Yatris.

“Everyone is scared after the 2017 attack. There is only one bus out of 180 in our district which is going to be part of the Yatra. I was lucky that I survived in the attack,” Sheikh, who was awarded by President Ram Nath Kovind, told ET over phone.

Sheikh has been taking pilgrims for Yatra every year since 2012 but not after 2017, he says.

On Sunday, the first batch of Yatris was flagged off from Bhagwati Nagar camp in Jammu, as 1051 pilgrims went through the Baltal route and 1183 devotees took the Pahalgam route. (see box). The lone bus from Gujarat was included in the convoy after multiple clearances, says officials at Jammu.

“There are more than 50 Yatris and we will be joining the convoy from here. We have been instructed not to reveal our coordinates to anyone. We are likely to conclude the Yatra in the first week itself,” said the owner of the bus, Raees Khan, from Vapi in South Gujarat.

Following the suicide attack on CRPF convoy at Pulwama in February and the failed attempt at Bannihal in March, central government has sought to re-orient its strategy and security drills. “Use of vehicle borne IEDs is the latest threat and its use during the ongoing Yatra cannot be ruled out,” a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) IG said. The Yatra every year receives 2.5 to 3 lakhs pilgrims from all over the country from July to August.

Speaking to ET, Amit Sharma, camp director at Nunwan in Pahalgam said, “Earlier, it was simple registration but from this year onwards we are issuing bar coded slips and radio tags. Each of them will also eligible for group insurance. In case of any mishap, the family will get Rs 2-3 lakhs from the insurance.” In order to ensure the safety of the convoy, CRPF said that it will install RFID tags on all the vehicles while movement of unregistered vehicles enroute Yatra will be restricted.

This will be the first Amarnath Yatra for Satya Pal Malik who took over as governor of Jammu and Kashmir in August last year. Malik, along with the union home minister Amit Shah, held a detailed security review last month where special emphasis was laid on safety of Yatris and convoy routes.
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SECURITY GRIDS & THREATS
The annual pilgrimage is conducted at two points—Baltal (North Kashmir) and Pahalgam (South Kashmir). This year, there will be a three layer security cordon around the shrine.

The outer layer is being secured by Army and Border Security Force (BSF) while Jammu and Kashmir police along with CRPF will be responsible for security of inner layers including pathways, movement of convoy, safety of camps and yatris.

The road opening party (ROP) will be managed by CRPF and Jammu and Kashmir police bet w e e n J a m m u to Jawahar tunnel while BSF along with Indian Army will be responsible for ROP duties after Jawahar tunnel, said a senior CRPF official, adding that the security of camps where yatris stay will be handled by CRPF.

As many as 123 militants from LeT, HM, AGuH, ISJK and JeM have been gunned down till June this year. “These groups have been looking to avenge these killings. Yatra becomes an easy target. The threat on Pahalgam route is high but we have been careful on Baltal route as well,” a senior J&K police official involved in the preparations, said.

Vehicle borne improvised explosive device (IED) and grenade throwing are not only main threats, said officials.

In 2019, there have been seven IED blasts so far including on an army vehicle that killed two soldiers last month. Last year, there were 10 IED blasts. There have also been 38 grenade blasts this year compared to 91 in 2018, according to Indian Army.

Considering the IEDs threats, CRPF, this year, has come out with detailed advisory for Yatris that says, “Anything that is hidden, obviously suspicious and not typical, should be deemed to be suspicious.

In addition, potential indicators for a bomb are threats, placement and proximity of the item to people and valuable assets.”
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WHAT’S NEW IN 2019
The security arrangements this year is being coordinated directly from New Delhi since J&K is under President’s rule imposed since December. “This time, Centre and security forces will be directly responsible for any lapse or incident,“ explains one of the advisor at the Raj Bhavan in Jammu and Kashmir. Union Home Minister Shah introduced the Centre’s proposal for extension of President’s rule for another six months last week.

Jammu and Kashmir government claims that the arrangements are better than the previous years and the state machinery is working round the clock to ensure improved facilities (see box).

“Besides bar coded slips and radio tags, we have erected mesh wires all along the yatra route to ensure no one is injured in case of stone pelting,“ one of the advisors to the Governor told ET.

“In all 84 additional disaster management centres have been set up on both sides to accommodate yatris in an emergency while daily MET reports will be generated and communicated to inform pilgrims about the weather conditions. In case of suspension of Yatra due to bad weather, we have identified additional holding areas. The transit accommodation on Pahalgam side has been increased from 4000 in 2018 to 7000 in 2019,” a senior J&K government official told ET.

The camp director and other functionaries have been asked to ensure effective sanitary arrangements in respect of the functioning of toilet, bath units, clean bedding and the day-to-day cleaning of the camp areas. There is also improvement at access control gates, establishment of camps, shelter sheds, medical camps, labour registration, emergency operation centres (EOCs) at various locations, provision of drinking water supply, lighting, LPG, ration and medicine. All departments including ATM, prepaid phone cards booth have also been set up inside the camp. There are 11 Langars set up inside the camp,” adds Sharma, the incharge at Pahalgam camp.

The state government has further delegated magisterial powers to all senior staff at the camp. “This is also for the first time, we have set up vehicle mounted X-ray facility at the camps. There are multiple layers of security checks before any person, including yatris, is allowed inside the camp.

CCTVs are installed inside and outside the camp which is being monitored by CRPF and Jammu and Kashmir Police,” says Imt iyaz Ahmad Rather, security head of Pahalgam camp.

The temporary accommodation at Nunwan in Pahalgam is two and half hour drive from Srinagar. “From the Nunwan camp, the devotees are taken to Chandanwari in a vehicle from where the person has to trek further till the holy shrine. The average time taken by devotees on this route is between 2-3 days,” adds camp incharge Sharma.

LIFE INSIDE THE CAMP
There are 450 tents at Nunwan camp. Each tent can accommodate 10 persons. For sadhus, the administration is providing hutments without any charges, while devotees staying inside the camp have to pay anything between Rs 200-300 per night. There are 42 shops inside the camp which sell daily-use products, the additional camp director said. “We come at this camp every year and set up tents to sell our goods. I, along with some of my relatives, have been provided this shop,” says Tauseef Ahmad from Sallar in Anantnag district.
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