As the number of Amarnath yatra pilgrims rises by the year, the casualty figures appear set to create a distressing record. Over the first four weeks of the 39-day yatra period, 97 pilgrims have died. There are 10 days left in the window for the year, and it is feared that the final toll may outstrip that of 2011 when 107 people died — which marked a spike over the 68 deaths in 2010 and 45 in 2009. The trip to the venerated Himalayan shrine involves an arduous trek in extreme cold conditions along a narrow path to reach an altitude of about 12,755 feet. Most of the deaths have been attributed to cardiac arrest and pulmonary problems. Dearth of oxygen in the rarefied high-altitude atmosphere is the biggest cause. The Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Board, which is in charge of the arrangements, has made it mandatory for each pilgrim to carry a medical certificate. However, it turns out that in their eagerness to qualify, some pilgrims obtain fake fitness certificates. The devout set out on an empty stomach after an ice-cold bath. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, who linked the high number of deaths to issues of age, poor fitness levels and lack of acclimatisation, may have hit the nail in the head. There is a case to put in place a fool-proof system involving multi-stage health screening — ensuring that those who have not registered through the proper process are not allowed to risk their lives. The CRPF and the BSF have created a network of medical camps that are functional round-the-clock along the two yatra routes, and there are medical aid posts set up by the State government, but their efficacy in handling life-threatening situations remain to be assessed. In the event of an emergency, there should be arrangements for swift evacuation to base camps, and thereafter to specified hospitals in Srinagar.

The Supreme Court’s decision to appoint a high-power committee to look into the deaths reflects concerns that have been widely felt. Taking suo motu note of reports, it has sought an explanation from the Central and Jammu and Kashmir governments on the medical and other facilities made available en route. It has also directed that the committee examine issues including the widening of the pilgrim passage route and provision of amenities. The court has asked the committee to visit the shrine. The state cannot be impervious to the pilgrims’ distress. The findings of the committee should form the basis for a protocol that would minimise deaths from accidents as well as from health emergencies along the yatra route at least from next year on.

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