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Right to health has to be placed on the highest pedestal: Jammu & Kashmir HC asks Shrine Board to decide whether to hold Amarnath Yatra

“We are bound by the parameters of the jurisdiction laid down by the Supreme Court", the High Court noted, referring to the Supreme Court’s recent decision to not pass orders on the issue of the Amarnath Yatra.

Shruti Mahajan

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, the Jammu & Kashmir High Court on Tuesday directed the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) to take a decision on holding of this year’s Amarnath Yatra.

The Bench of Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice Sanjay Dhar referred to the Supreme Court’s recent decision to not pass orders on the issue of the Amarnath Yatra on the grounds that the issue fell within the executive domain. The High Court Bench said that it is bound by jurisdictional limitation.

“We are bound by the parameters of the jurisdiction laid down by the Supreme Court."
Jammu & Kashmir High Court

The High Court thus directed the SASB to take an urgent decision on the Yatra this year. The Shrine Board has been directed to inform the applicant as well as amicus curiae Monika Kohli regarding its decision on the holding of the Yatra.

A status report prepared by the Jammu & Kashmir administration in relation to preparedness for holding the Yatra was placed before the Court. After assessing the same, the Court noted that the Yatra is not only a religious congregation, but is also a source of income and livelihood for several communities in the region.

However, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the factors such as restriction of movement, norms of social distancing, and others ought to be weighed in and considered while making the decision for allowing the Yatra or not, the Court noted.

It observed that the respondents have highlighted the “lack of preparedness” and the adverse impact the Yatra would have on the efforts of the Jammu & Kashmir government in containing the spread of the Coronavirus.

In its order, the Court also took note of the fact that the Supreme Court had allowed the conduct of this year's Jagannath Puri Yatra at Odisha. Distinguishing the Amarnath Yatra from the event held at Puri, the Court noted,

"We must be cognizant of the stark difference in the two Yatras. Whereas the Yatra at Puri is in the heart of a main city, the Shri Amarnathji Yatra is over extremely difficult terrain, undertaken on a rough and narrow hilly track at extremely high altitudes. The orders of the Supreme Court manifest that though the Lord Jagannath Yatra was permitted, however members of the public were not allowed to participate and declaration of strict curfew in the town was directed. This Yatra was a single day event. As against this, the Shri Amarnathji Yatra envisages continuous visits by yatris from all over the country to the Anantnag District over a period of time..."

Amicus Kohli also informed the Court that through an order passed in April, the Board had cancelled the Yatra for this year. However, this order was subsequently recalled. Between April and July 10 - the date when the status report was prepared - “the matter of making arrangements has not moved so much,” the High Court observed.

Therefore, the High Court directed the government of Jammu & Kashmir to place this status report dated July 10 before the Board to facilitate its decision-making process.

The High Court said,

“The Shri Amarnath Shrine Board and the respondents shall urgently take all decisions regarding the Yatra while complying with the order dated 13th July, 2020 in WP(C) No.623/2020 of the Supreme Court of India.”

While taking a decision on the holding of the Yatra, the Shrine Board must take into account not only the right to health of every person, which is to be placed at the highest pedestal, but also must factor in the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) and the guidelines laid down by the Centre and the J&K administration to contain the pandemic, the Court said.

The health concerns as regards the pilgrims, security personnel, priests, officials involved, and all other stakeholders involved in the Yatra must be taken into account by the SASB, the Court said. It added,

“In the decision making, the Board shall ensure consideration of the welfare and support of all persons, especially the members of the communities who provide the porterage/pithoos, palkis; mules and horses and who provide services on the Yatra.”
Jammu & Kashmir High Court

Advocate Sachin Sharma appeared for the intervenor.

The Jammu & Kashmir government was represented by Advocate General DC Raina and Additional Advocate General Aseem Sawhney.

Read Order:

J&K HC order on Amarnath Yatra.pdf
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