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SC asks Vaishno Devi Shrine Board to rehabilitate pony-owners

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New Delhi, May 03:  A peculiar situation triggered by who would bear the annual cost of Rs 2.1 crore to rehabilitate pony-owners at the Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu, today prompted the Supreme Court to suggest to the Shrine Board to mull over levying a nominal charge of one rupee from each pilgrim.

The apex court, which was told by the Jammu and Kashmir government that the Shrine Board has declined to bear the expense, observed that 50,000 devotees visited the shrine daily and if a charge of even Rs one is levied on them, the money could be used for rehabilitation of pony and mule owners.

“Even if you (Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board) charge Rs one for it, 1.80 crore people come there (annually). You take Rs one or Rs two from them and you will get so much amount. Pilgrims will be happy to give even Rs 100. You think over it,” a bench of Justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta said.

“If you are having 50,000 people a day and suppose if each person gives Rs one only, you will make Rs 50,000 a day. Please think about it. You (board) cannot say ‘I will make money and keep it in my pocket’,” the bench said.

The issue cropped up when Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Maninder Singh, who appeared for Jammu and Kashmir, said a cabinet meeting was held on April 24 and the policy of rehabilitation of pony and mule owners was discussed.

He said their rehabilitation would cost around Rs 2.1 crore annually and the shrine board has declined to bear this expense.

Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, who appeared for the Shrine Board, informed the bench that a new walking track to the shrine was ready and would be operational this month.

He said the issue was not about charging Rs one from the devotees and once the track opens, mules might not be used there. “Mules are not my responsibility,” he said while adding that the expenses of the Shrine Board was huge.

However, the bench observed, “but they (pony owners) were serving the pilgrims for so many years to take them to your place.”

The bench asked an officer of the board, who was present in the court, to consider these aspects with a humanitarian approach. “Mata Vaishno Devi will not come up and say what is the law. You look at it with a human approach,” the bench said, adding, “everybody has to be reasonable”.

Rohatgi said he would inform the in-charge of the Shrine Board about it.

“If you want a decision on law, we will hear you and pass order, but it would not help you. Some solution has to be found out for the benefit of the people, benefit of environment and benefit of mule owners. It can be done only by collaborative efforts and not by court orders,” the bench said.

“It is a good idea. You all can sit and talk about it. There are millions of people who would be willing to pay money to Vaishno Devi (board),” the bench said and posted the matter for further hearing in July.

During the hearing, the counsel appearing for activist Gauri Maulekhi, who had earlier filed a plea in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) seeking removal of horses and mules from the path to the shrine, said there were two issues — one about environment and pollution there and the other on opening of the new track for battery-operated vehicles.

He said the Shrine Board has made the new path but around 7,000 unregulated animals were plying on the track to the shrine which causes huge environmental problems.

The lawyer said these animals have to be phased out and pony and mule owners have to be rehabilitated and there should be a plan for this.

The ASG told the bench that a plan was there but it would cost Rs 2.1 crore annually.

“How many pilgrims go there annually,” the bench then asked and also made it clear that the state has the responsibility to rehabilitate these mule owners.

Rohatgi said the NGT had capped the number of visitors to the shrine at 50,000 per day.

At the fag end of hearing, the counsel for Maulekhi, said the NGT order was for opening of the new track which would be a motorable road for plying of battery operated vehicles. “At the present, we are not going into the question as to whether it (new track) should me motorable or not as stated in the NGT order,” the bench observed.

The apex court had in November last year stayed the NGT’s order directing the opening of a new pathway to the shrine for pedestrians and battery-operated cars from November 24, 2017.

The order had come after the shrine board, which manages the day-to-day affairs as well as pilgrimage to the temple, had said the construction work of the new path was not yet complete.

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