In many countries or regions around the world, construction projects in disputed or otherwise politically volatile regions can run into opposition, especially where significant areas of political, environmental or religious concerns are at stake.
In Kashmir, the Supreme Court has issued directions for construction of a macadamised road up to the holy cave of Amarnath, a famous Hindu shrine located in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, situated at an altitude of 3,888 metres.
The reports, which follow the court’s expression of shock and concern last month over the deaths of 86 yatris (Hindus on a pilgrimage) who died during a pilgrimage to the holy cave and the subsequent constitution of a special court to visit and examine the site and report back on ways to ensure safe pilgrimage, have been denied by the government and the court itself.
Still, the reports are causing consternation among a number of civil society groups, who have issued a joint press release expressing concern over what they say are directions by the Supreme Court to the Jammu and Kashmir governments regarding the undertaking of civil engineering work leading to the construction of road and infrastructure in the environmentally fragile Himalayan habitat surrounding the site.
Whilst signatories to the release acknowledge concerns about the safety and good health of intending pilgrims to the high altitude site, they say that any form of increase in human activity through in the area – upon which the vast majority of the Kashmir population depends for drinking water that originates from glaciers surrounding the Amarnath site – would increase pollution, threaten public health, and cause irreversible damage to the flora and fauna that are so crucial to tourism and agriculture in the area.
Warning that any politicisation of the pilgrimage could be fraught with ‘serious consequences’, signatories say it is imperative that any new developments regarding the pilgrimage be conducted in full accordance with state and national environmental and forest policy.
The group adds that the construction of roads or cable cars will not negate the inherent risks associated with high altitude travel, such as acute mountain sickness, high altitude cerebral edema, and high altitude pulmonary edema. Rather, these conditions must be prevented through proper and gradual acclimatisation measures.
For its part, the government has denied that any orders for construction of the road have been given.
“Rumours are being spread that road would be constructed up to the Holy Cave,” says a joint statement by Minister for Finance Abdul Rahim Rather and Health Minister Sham Lal Sharma. “There is no truth in it. We want to assure you that no road would be constructed.”
Even if the reports are false, these events serve to underline how controversial road and infrastructure projects can strike at the heart of local sensitivities.
This is not the first time tensions have been present in the area. More than 60 protesters were killed in 2008 when massive protests broke out against the transfer of forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board.