Phase out all equines with battery carts on Vaishno Devi track

Cautions against break out of major epidemic

Sanjeev Pargal
JAMMU, May 5: Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Sanjay Gandhi has shot off a letter to Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti seeking steps to phase out equines from Mata Vaishno Devi Ji track and replacing these high maintenance animals with battery operated carts saying this was necessary to prevent massive outbreak of glanders epidemic in the State of Jammu and Kashmir and betterment of residents of holy town of Katra, the base camp of the shrine.
“Keeping in mind the betterment of the residents of Katra, owners of the livestock, the tourists (pilgrims), who visit the shrine and to prevent a massive outbreak of glanders in the State of Jammu and Kashmir, I urge you to take steps towards phasing out of equines and replacing these high maintenance animals with battery operated carts on the track,” Maneka said in her letter No. 08/04/1/18 Minister/WCD/2018, written to Mehbooba Mufti.
Keeping in mind the number of owners of the equines, who would be rendered unemployed if the equines are barred from operating on the track, Maneka Gandhi suggested that the battery operated carts can be operated by the same persons, who until now used animals.
“There are over 5,000 equines that are used for transportation of goods and people on Mata Vaishno Devi Ji track. These animals are a source of a highly contagious and communicable zoonotic disease called glanders. To provide veterinary services and surveillance across the track and in the notified area to prevent outbreaks of disease of mortality of livestock is next to impossible given the terrain and staff shortages. Equine owners earn a small income but suffer huge and repeated losses due to mortality of animals,” Maneka pointed out in her letter to the Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister.
Noting that the presence of such a large number of animals in Katra also cause serious inconvenience to residents and traders in Katra, Maneka pointed out that they have also approached the Court to have the equines replaced with alternatives.
“The equine owners are at the greatest risk of being exposed to the deadly glanders virus which has no cure anywhere in the world. The person who contracts it from a horse/mule dies of flu-like symptoms,” the Union Minister said.
She said the Principal Bench of the National Green Tribunal has directed the Chief Secretary of Jammu and Kashmir and Chief Executive Officer, Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board to hold meeting with the stakeholders to consider rehabilitation scheme for the mules that are being used to carry pilgrims to the holy cave shrine.
“Pursuant to the order, meetings were conducted and a Draft Rehabilitation Plan was filed before the Tribunal by the J&K Chief Secretary on 20.10.2017. The Rehabilitation Plan contains provision for alternative livelihood for the equine owners and provision for safe and clean mode of transport on the track,” Maneka Gandhi said, adding: “this is for the betterment of all parties involved”.
She pointed out that the Tribunal has directed the State Government to comply with the Rehabilitation Plan multiple times. The delay in finalization of the Rehabilitation Plan has led to coercive action of the courts towards the State so much so that vide order dated 22.3.2018, the Tribunal imposed a cost of Rs 50 lakh upon the State for nor implementing the Draft Rehabilitation Plan and the matter is now being heard by the Supreme Court.
Maneka Gandhi’s letter to the Chief Minister assumed significance as it comes close on the heels of Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board’s decision to open alternate track from Katra to Adh Kunwari, which has been named as `Tarakote Marg’. However, Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board (SMVDSB) has already made it clear that the equines will not be allowed to move on the new track and they will be confined to the existing track only.
It may be mentioned here that the equines are also not allowed on alternate track from Adh Kunwari to Bhawan. From Adh Kunwari onwards, the equines take traditional Hathi Matha and Sanji Chat route to take pilgrims to Mata Vaishno Devi Ji Bhawan.
The equines have been operating on the track for years together but their number swelled with increase in pilgrimage after the SMVDSB took over affairs of the shrine in 1986. The pilgrimage, which was just 13 lakh a year in 1986, now has been hovering between eight to nine million a year. It had even gone up to 10 million few years back.