The hopes of thousands of Kashmiris who were looking forward to a major economy impetus from the annual Amarnath Yatra have been left dashed. The government has decided that the yatra shall not be held this year due to Covid restrictions.
Every year, lakhs of Hindus from the other parts of the country and also abroad converge in Kashmir for the Amarnath Yatra, regarded as a divine pilgrimage. The inflow of the large number of yatris (pilgrims) gives a major boost to Kashmir’s economy. The yatra happens through two routes. The longer and more popular route is through Pahalgam. The shorter route is through Baltal near Sonmarg.
Thousands of Kashmiris in Pahalgam and also in Sonmarg are able to earn handsomely from providing various services to the yatris. The economic boost given by the Amarnath Yatra can be gauged from the fact that by the time the Yatra was cancelled midway in 2019, 3.42 lakh pilgrims had paid obeisance at the holy cave. The previous year, in 2018, 2.85 lakh pilgrims had travelled to the holy cave. Due to Covid restrictions, the Amarnath Yatra was cancelled in 2020, and has again been cancelled in 2021.
Thousands of Kashmiris residing in Pahalgam and Sonmarg used to depend on the Amarnath yatra for a good part of their annual earnings. Many service providers like the pony wallahs, dhaba owners, transporters, tent providers, hoteliers, restaurant owners and the labour class in and around Pahalgam and Sonmarg are anguished that the yatra has been cancelled.
In addition, the spending by the tourists in Srinagar and other towns on the way to Pahalgam used to majorly benefit the local economy. Covid has left them all in lurch. Many families used to make their earnings for a whole year from providing services at the yatra.
Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Board said it will arrange online darshan for the devotees worldwide. Kashmiris in and around Pahalgam and Sonmarg understand that on account of Covid, organizing the yatra this year was risky. Nevertheless, they are disappointed staring at the loss of income again this year.
About 5000 Kashmiris wholly dependent on Yatra for earnings
Tehsildar Pahalgam Mohammad Hussain said the government has taken the decision in the interest of the devotees and the local population alike. “We are aware that many kinds of service providers depend on the yatra for augmenting their annual income. They will suffer because the Yatra shall not happen. Even though we want to boost tourism, it is essential to follow standard operating procedures (SOPs) which are part of Covid protocol. We have five working days a week which are non-curfew days. Local tourists, as well as those from other parts of the country, are coming here for holidays. In this way, we are trying to promote tourism by following the Covid protocol,” he said.
When asked about the number of families who are almost wholly dependent on the Amarnath Yatra for their annual earnings, Mohammad Hussain said that almost 5,000 Kashmiris are may be severely impacted. “The local and national tourists are the main source of income for these people associated with the tourism sector. Covid has hit each and every sector of tourism like transport, dhabas, restaurants, hotels etc. We are hopeful that our district shall make it to the Green Zone. Once that is done, the weekend restrictions shall be lifted, and all sectors shall be able to earn better,” he said.
Sheikh Ashiq, President of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and industry said that Kashmir had suffered economic losses worth Rs 40,000 crore since August 2019. “Kashmir’s economy is sinking. It’s a matter of survival for a major section of the society. If things continue like this, it will have grave social impact, I fear,” said Ashiq.
Ghulam Nabi Lone, President of the Pony Walla Association at Pahalgam said that for three consecutive years, the earnings of all the pony wallahs had suffered. “Almost 2500 pony wallahs are left in lurch. Many of them have sold their ponies and saddles in order to feed their family. We are living on God’s mercy,” Lone said despondently.
The hoteliers in the Pahalgam are unhappy with the decision of the government to cancel the Amarnath Yatra this year too. Bilal Ahmad, a hotel owner, said that the cancellation of the Amarnath Yatra for the third consecutive year is a big setback for the hotel industry of Kashmir, and more particularly for the hoteliers of Pahalgam. “The Yatra is a major source of our livelihood. Since the past few years, we are not able to pay the salaries of our staff on time. Earnings have dipped because of low occupancy rate in the hotels. We know Covid is a major concern, but even then we were hoping that the Yatra would run this year with adherence to Covid protocol. The livelihood of thousands of people is dependant upon the Yatra,” he said.
The transporters and dhaba owners are badly impacted too. Many service providers are demanding Covid relief packages to help them recover from the losses induced by the pandemic.