Prof Rishi Dogra
Till 18th of March, 2020 when Vaishnodevi pilgrimage was suspended, the small Katra town was bustling with activity and there wasn’t expectation anywhere that within days it would become desolate and deserted with all shops shut, all hotels closed and all educational institutions paralyzed. And every passing day after that has seen the picture becoming weird and and all the more weird.
This is the first time that Vaishnodevi pilgrimage has been suspended in living memory. As the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic assumes dreadful proportions in different parts of the country including the national capital Delhi, the prospects of Vaishnodevi pilgrimage resuming anytime soon become dimmer and dimmer. What is particularly worrying is that there doesn’t seem to be any light on the other side of the tunnel and as long as the country continues to convalesce under the impact of the viral malaise there isn’t a glimmer of hope that pilgrimage will be revived in near future.
The tragedy with Jammu & Kashmir is that it has witnessed unprecedented instabilityfor the last nearly four decades. Not a day passes when there is no militancy related violence, not a day passes when the people living on the LoC are not attacked by our hostile neighbour and not a day passes when we do not see separatists and mainstream political parties dragging the state and its people to new precipices of uncertainty. This continuing atmosphere of uncertainty adversely impacted the influx of tourists and Vaishnodevi pilgrims to the state. Finally, on 5th of August 2019, Jammu & Kashmir got bifurcated into two separate UTs of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh with the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state losing its special status under Article 370 and 35-A. As the birth of two UTs and abrogation of Article 370 and 35-A was announced, the state saw heavy deployment of security forces in every nook and corner of the state alongwith the suspension of 4G internet services. This resulted in hurried conclusion of Amarnath yatra that year followed by massive cancellations in hotel bookings and sudden nose-diving of all business activities both in Kashmir valley, Jammu and the holy township of Katra. Because of sudden snapping of 4G internet services, the worst sufferers were the travel and tour operators, the hoteliers and the traders with collateral damage percolating down to houseboats and shikara operators, transporters, shop keepers, dhabawallas, gift houses, dry fruit sellers and shawls emporia and so on. After nearly 08 months when pilgrims and tourists once again started trickling in, Covid-19 came as the worst ever dampner.
As if the recipe for total decimation wasn’t yet complete, the recent bloody stand-off between India and China with eastern Ladakh has come as yet another spoiler in the UT of Jammu and Kashmir limping back to normalcy.We have total faith in our national capabilities and when it comes to settling scores with enemy forces we are sure our sovereignty and national honour will triumph over all the challenges but we are also aware of the woes and miseries this conflict is bound to lead to. Unless good sense prevails on both the sides the size and scale of devastation resulting from this conflict is imaginable.
Now where do we stand in this kind of scenario? This is the time when whole of the world is fighting Covid-19 with all its horrifying consequences. We aren’t yet sure about how to defeat this invisible enemy and we aren’t sure as to what turn Indo-China stand-off will finally take. Not to be left behind in this deadly race is Pakistan that has reported to have made heavy deployment of security forces in Gilgitand Baltistan region in an obvious move to provide logistic support to China
Whatever be the outcome, it is a foregone conclusion that the situation in Jammu and Kashmir will continue to be grim and tense till Covid-19 is successfully contained and till the prevailing situation in Ladakh region returns to normal. At the moment it seems the people of the UTs of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh will have to endure these trying times at least in near foreseeable future.
In the meantime country has entered Unlock-2 from 1st of July onwards. The relaxations extended in Lockdown-1 are being further eased and though in some of the urban areas the pandemic is still surging, people are beginning to come to terms with the challenges posed by corona virus and are trying to revive their livelihoods by adopting to the changed ground realities. Options are severely limited. Either you have to devise new work ethics and strategies and adhere strictly to them or you have to hibernate and spend your savings till there are none left.
In Katra township, there aren’t any stringent restrictions with regard to movement of the people and the opening of business establishments. This is because the town hasn’t so far seen any Covid-19 +ve case except one reported of that of a railway employee from Punjab posted at Katra who had travel history of having visited his home town in Punjab and who was immediately isolated and admitted in Covid hospital shortly after. Following this is the reporting of two more positive cases just a dayback involving two employees of MC Katra for which contact tracing is being vigorously done. District administration has from time to time acknowledged the cooperation it has received from the local population in all anti-covid measures including social distancing, wearing masks and strict abidance of instructions and directives issued from time to time. The present situation is that administration wants to see this town bustle once again with pilgrims but that won’t happen. Pilgrims will not come given a big spike in corona virus spread all across the country, particularly in major cities like Mumbai,Delhi, Kolkatta, Bangalore, Chenai, Hyderabad , Lucknow, Patna, Jaipur and Indore. People of Katra town therefore do not see any chances of Vaishnodevi pilgrimage reviving under these conditions. Resultantly, they are keeping their shutters down ever since Lockdown-1. Whole of Katra town is thus desolate and deserted at the moment and is engulfed in a shroud of uncertainty .As the major chunk of population of the town is engaged in small trading and businesses and only a negligible percentage of people are in government jobs, people of the town are already on the brink of bankruptcy. They are finding it increasingly hard to meet their day to day domestic expenses, to pay the tuition fees of their sons and daughters, to pay for the rents of shops and residential accommodations, to pay the electricity bills, to pay their EMIs to banks and other financial institutions. Air is filled up with despair and mortifying helplessness on all sides. Small traders like dry fruit sellers and those dealing with Shawls and wollen items are the worst hit. They routinely make moderate to heavy investments in the month of March which is the time when Vaishnodevi pilgrimage traditionally picks up after the slump of winter months. The time when Lockdown-1 was put on ground, these investments were already made. With unanticipated clamping of lockdown roughly during the same period dry fruits started wilting away shawls and other hosiery items which remained dumped in shops under hot and humid conditions were invaded by pests and rhodents resulting in these delicate items getting junked. Now when people open their shutters to see the extent of damage, they throw up their hands in utter despair and helplessness.
The UT authorities cannot be unaware of this ground reality if they are being regularly given a proper feedback by the district administration. Blissfully, we haven’t yet come across any policy statement with regard to the overall plight of the local populace of Katra that has no clues so far as to how will they be tiding over this worst ever economic disaster of their life time. We heard some people saying that hoteliers of the town have been provided some kind of relief by a minister from GOI intervening on their behalf getting the EMIs of these hotels delayed by three installments. If anything, this is just eyewash.
What is needed at the moment is to create conditions that can finally pave the way for the resumption of Vaishnodevi pilgrimage. But that is something uncertain and unpredictable. And if pilgrimage fails to resume, several thousand people will be the worst affected including working class that includes salesmen, room boys, service boys in hotels, mangers in hotels and restaurants, cooks, taxi and auto rickshaw operators, masons, carpenters, painters, electricians, plumbers, porters, poneywallas and so on. In order to put things back on the track, what is immediately required is that some special package is required to be immediately given to the entire trading community of the town depending upon lump sum assessment of losses suffered by different category of traders. Unless this is done, people will be in no position to revive their trades. There are numerous instances of special packages being given to the people in Kashmir Valley when their apple crops got impacted by adverse climatic conditions. If sanction of special package for a short-term loss is justified, how can authorities shut their minds and eyes on the biggest economic disaster of the century hitting the people of Katra town (as also elsewhere)straight in the stomach.
This is also the time when the LG Jammu and Kashmir needs to have a realistic overview of the composition and performance of Shri Mata Vaishnodevi Shrine Board, since he happens to be the Chairman of this apex body by virtue of the office he holds as the LG of UT of J&K. The traditional approach ofShri Mata Vaishnodevi Shrine Board has been one of confrontation with the business community of this town rather than one of healthy cooperation. Reason behind this, as everyone in the town knows, is that Shri Mata Vaishnodevi Board has all through these years tried to marginalize the business community by initiating most of its moves in the direction of its brash commercialization like opening a separate motorable road right from the bank of Banganga rivulet upto the holy shrine, a move that has strongly been opposed by the people of the town as blatant and unwarranted interference in the religious affairs of hindus and centuries old traditions connected with Vaishnodevi pilgrimage. This kind of authoritarian approach wouldn’t have been possible had there been a Shrine Board having some renowned religious scholars and local socio-cultural experts on the strength of its members rather than armchair members from outside the state or some superfluous experts drawn at will from certain influential local pocket with scant regards for our traditions and customs. Most relevant thing for the UT LG would therefore be not only to restore the confidence of the people and the pilgrims but also to galvanize it as an effective organization aiming at keeping the sanctity of the holy shrine at the top of everything else and making it people-friendly rather than allowing it to degenerate into a bully expecting unquestioned subservience to its irrational moves that can be counted on fingertips.
If Shri Mata Vaishnodevi Shrine Board really doesn’t see the interests of the Shrine Board as different from the interests of the people of Katra town, did it convene any meeting with the locals of Katra town ( its henchmen excluded)during Covid-19 pandemic which was aimed at reviving the pilgrimage. If yes, what were the recommendations of the members and what was the subsequent follow up? Were the proceedings of this meeting ever made public by way of a press note so that lurking doubts and fears in the minds of the local population could be put at rest? Yes, one decision that we all know the Shrine Board taken hand in hand with the district administration was that it facilitated the setting up of several quarantine centres in Katra town. These quarantine centers, nearly 20 odd numbers, mushroomed in some buildings of the Shrine Board and in some private hotels whose owners presumably had some nexus with Shrine Board and district authorities. We don’t say quarantine centres shouldn’t have been set up here but we do say that they should have been set up reasonably well outside the main locality in order to be cautious about the spread of deadly corona virus. Moreover, where is the logic for quarantining air passengers in Katra when most of them wanted to stay in Jammu (as reported in the media) but were dragged to Katra?
Everything said, Katra township has become a ghost town these days. Doesn’t UT government need to shake off its slumber? Doesn’t Shri Mata Vaishnodevi Shrine Board have some moral responsibility and some active role to play in the midst of such an unprecedented crisis situation where survival and starvation are bumping into each other with an ever growing sense of uncertainty ?
Prof Rishi Dogra