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Trouble in Kashmir has had little impact on the annual Amarnath Yatra to the holy Shiva shrine tucked away in the Himalayas, with data showing that some of the most disturbed years in the Valley have seen high numbers of pilgrims taking part in the arduous trek. A total of 2.60 lakh people took part in the just concluded yatra to the cave with the naturally-formed ice lingam this summer. According to data provided by the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB), the number of pilgrims in the yatra this year, which began on June 29 and ended on August 7, was 40,000 more than the 2.20 lakh last year. A comparative study of the data on the number of pilgrims over the years indicates that large numbers of people joined the yatras even when the Valley was beset by violence. In 2008, when 5.33 lakh pilgrims undertook the yatra, the Amarnath land row agitation was at its peak, as the state witnessed widespread protests for and against the allotment of nearly 100 acres of land to the SASB by the then PDP-BJP government for creating permanent facilities for pilgrims. In 2009, which was relatively peaceful, 3.81 lakh pilgrims joined the yatra, but the numbers shot to 4.56 lakh the following year when Kashmir witnessed a five-month-long summer agitation against a fake encounter killing of three people in the Macchil sector. The yatra period coincided with unrest in the Valley. The highest number of pilgrims to the 3880-metre high cave shrine in the south Kashmir Himalayas was recorded in 2011 when 6.34 lakh people joined the pilgrimage.
The number soared to a record high despite apprehensions that there would be a repeat of 2010-like protests in Kashmir. Since then, the numbers have mostly shown a decline. In 2012, 6.20 lakh pilgrims joined the yatra. There was a massive drop in the numbers in 2013, when 3.54 yatris took part in the pilgrimage. In 2014, the number increased marginally to 3.70 lakh but fell the following year to 3.50 lakh. However, the number of yatris fell to a 13-year low of 2.20 lakh last year. The Kashmir Valley witnessed widespread unrest triggered by the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani by security forces in July, 2016. SASB officials believe that the tightening of permit rules for pilgrims is a major factor for the drop in numbers. The board came up with a slew of new rules in 2012 following the intervention of the Supreme Court over reports of deaths of pilgrims because of lack of proper medical facilities on the way to the shrine. Under the new guidelines, the board decided not to allow pilgrims below the age of 13 years and over 75 to undertake the pilgrimage in view of the difficult terrain and high altitude that could lead to breathing problems. The board also made it mandatory for every pilgrim to carry a medical certificate declaring him or her fit for the journey. Carrying a permit valid only for particular dates was also made compulsory to ensure that there was no overcrowding on the yatra routes. Before the SASB was formed by an act of the state legislature in 2001, the number of pilgrims visiting the cave shrine was around one lakh every year. The number of pilgrims allowed was restricted in view of the recommendations made by the Sengupta commission, formed by the state government in 1996 in the wake of a weather-related tragedy that took the lives of 205 pilgrims and 25 porters. The commission recommended limiting the period of yatra to one month and not allowing more than 3000 pilgrims per day from the Nunwan and Baltal base camps to undertake the pilgrimage.
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