J&K opens for tourism, pilgrimage but locked down for locals

It was widely reported that Amarnath Yatra will be conducted this year with up to 500 pilgrims per day

Kashmir
After complete silence for about eight months since August last year, the unionist parties began making some noise. Photo: PTI

The Jammu and Kashmir administration’s stunning move on Sunday (July 12) to reintroduce severe restrictions and re-impose lockdown in many areas of the Kashmir Valley while simultaneously throwing open the region for tourism activities and the holy Amarnath pilgrimage, has stirred a heated debate.

It was widely reported that the Amarnath pilgrimage, also known as Amarnath Yatra, will be conducted this year with not more than 500 pilgrims allowed per day. In a high-level meeting in North Block, New Delhi, it was resolved that the pilgrimage to the cave, considered sacred by devotees of Lord Shiva, would be allowed for a fortnight starting July 21.

Until the 1950s, only about 4,500 pilgrims used to visit the cave and the pilgrimage would be a fortnightly affair. In subsequent years, this duration increased from two to six weeks. In 2013, according to government figures, a total of 3.5 lakh pilgrims visited the holy cave.

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Baseer Ahmad Khan, one of the advisors to Jammu and Kashmir’s Lieutenant Governor GC Murmu, also convened a high-level meeting to “review arrangements for smooth conduct of the Amarnathji Yatra, 2020.”

“Threadbare discussion was held on various issues regarding the annual pilgrimage which inter alia included traffic, food supply, health services, fire safety measures, electricity, water supply, telecom connectivity, disaster management, accurate weather forecasting services, and other issues,” an official statement said.

However, what has irked the civil society coalitions in Kashmir is the government’s decision to impose restrictions on the locals due to a spike in the COVID-19 infections, while allowing tourism and granting green signal to the Amarnath pilgrimage.

“These are obviously double standards. For one community, the J&K administration has barred all social, religious, political and recreational activities, citing COVID-19 pandemic as a reason. On the other hand, the same administration is allowing a religious pilgrimage for another community and throwing open parks and gardens for tourists,” Khurram Parvez, coordinator J&K Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS,) told The Federal in Srinagar.

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Meanwhile, the administration has imposed strict restrictions in 88 “containment zones” in Srinagar district alone. The administration argued that there has been a major spike in the number of positive cases and deaths in Srinagar and other districts of the restive region.

“The decision to impose restrictions has been taken after recommendations of experts and is aimed at containing further spread of the COVID-19 disease,” the government said.

The Srinagar city currently wears a deserted look as the authorities have “sealed off all but one entry and exit points in the containment zones.” The concerned authorities have been directed to disallow “all kinds of movement and activities in these areas. No one will be allowed to move in or out of these areas.”

Some punitive measures have also been introduced. “The fine for face mask violations has been enhanced to ₹1,000 whereas the violation of social distancing guidelines in red zones will be fined at ₹10,000,” the government has announced.

Shahid Choudhary, district magistrate and development commissioner, Srinagar, said that the number of positive cases of COVID-19 has seen a sharp spike in recent weeks in the Kashmir Valley.

“In view of a major spike in COVID-19, we’ll have to carve out containment zones for effective restrictions in different areas of Srinagar. Local cooperation is solicited in best interest of public health. Notified,” Choudhary said in a tweet.

Only four days ago — on July 8, the fourth death anniversary of the militant commander of proscribed Hizbul Mujahideen, Burhan Wani — the J&K government had decided to throw open parks and gardens for the public. And four days later, the administration imposed severe restrictions on public movement.

At present, according to the government, the total number of positive cases in Jammu and Kashmir is 10,513, of which 4,355 are active cases while 5,979 have recovered. The death toll stands at 179, of which 162 have taken place in the Kashmir Valley while 17 individuals have died in the Jammu province due to the pandemic.

Several doctors have defended the move to re-impose restrictions and declare areas in the Valley as “containment zones.” Strangely, the same doctors had hailed the administration’s move to throw open parks and gardens just four days ago.

Related news: Kashmir: From a dream tourism destination to ‘first victim’

Dr. Suhail Naik, consultant paediatrician and president of Doctors Association Kashmir (DAK), said: “If people can enjoy pure oxygen in public parks, then what is the problem with oxygen at colleges and Universities.”

He also complained that people were not following preventive measures as was required to fight the deadly pandemic. “Birbal was right. 99 per cent of people are blind,” he said and added that “it is time to add social boycott to social distancing. Boycott people who are not following SOP. They are a threat to society.”

What has also confused people in the Valley is the fact that after reintroducing lockdown for the natives, the J&K government has decided to open the region for tourism in a phased manner, starting July 14. In this connection, a set of guidelines has also been issued.

“In the view of the Covid related measures, it is felt imperative to put in place a protocol to be followed by the tourists as well the persons/authorities engaged in the hospitality sector,” the government press release read.

The administration urged the elderly, those aged 65 years and above, to avoid travelling. In the first phase, only air travellers are allowed. Tourists are also required to produce the booking details of their accommodation upon arrival.

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Muslim Jan, a senior academic and civil society actor based in Srinagar, is of the view that economic activities in Kashmir should not be halted for the people have suffered due to the prolonged lockdowns and restrictions since August 5 last year when the region lost its semi-autonomous status and statehood.

“Yes, coronavirus is an irrefutable reality and people should strictly adhere to all the preventive measures. But, at the same time, the government cannot snatch livelihoods of the marginalised sections. Business activities must go on while following all necessary protocol,” she told The Federal.

Meanwhile, the tourism department has made RT-PCR testing compulsory for all incoming tourists. “Till the test result shows a negative result for Covid-19, a tourist will remain in the hotel where the booking has been made and shall not be allowed to move out. A form to this effect shall be signed at the airport,” a government order issued on Sunday said.

Those tourists coming with a Covid-19 negative report will not be required to remain in their hotel rooms. However, RT-PCR testing will apply to them as well. The incoming tourists must also have a confirmed return air ticket from Jammu and Kashmir. Transport facilities will need to be pre-booked by the travellers through hotels or travel agencies.

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