Authorities tighten arrangements at Mata Vaishno Devi shrine
Katra: Unfazed by the Saturday stampede that left 12 devotees dead, people were flocking to the hill shrine where authorities have deployed security personnel in full strength and are greeting pilgrims with chants of “Darshan Karo, Katra Chalo” to encourage them not to linger on after paying obeisance.
The yatra that registered a footfall of over 55.77 lakh in 2021, compared to 17 lakh the previous year due to the coronavirus pandemic, was going on smoothly, with visitors expressing satisfaction over the arrangements of the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board.
Twelve people lost their lives and 16 others were injured in the stampede in the early hours of Saturday after a scuffle between two groups of pilgrims during the New Year rush. Many eyewitnesses said that there was overcrowding as people were staying back on the shrine premises after ‘darshan’ instead of returning to the base camp at Katra.
It was the first such tragedy at the revered shrine located atop the Trikuta hills in Reasi district, about 50 km from Jammu.
“As we entered the sanctum sanctorum of the Mata to offer our prayers, we were greeted by the words ‘Darshan Karo Katra Challo’ (pay obeisance and leave for Katra) from the deployed policemen,” Motiya Rani (58), a resident of Panipat in Haryana, told PTI on Sunday.
Rani, accompanied by her two sons, their wives and five grandchildren, said the yatra was going on smoothly and they did not face any problem.
“I have been visiting Mata to seek her blessings on the first day of every year for many years. I reached Katra on December 31 and was scheduled to visit the shrine on Saturday but the unfortunate incident delayed our visit by a day this time,” she said.
People were as usual queuing up at the registration counters, eagerly waiting for their turn to offer prayers.
Manoj Kumar (36), a resident of Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh, said postponing the pilgrimage never came to mind after hearing about the “sad incident”.
“What happened yesterday (Saturday) was an unfortunate incident. We have been waiting for this day for a long time and are happy to reach here to offer our prayers and seek the blessings of the presiding deity,” he said.
“I have been here many times in the past and know this place very well. I was surprised to hear about the tragic loss in the stampede,” Kumar said.
The stampede at the shrine occurred at 2.15 AM near a relatively narrow passage at gate number 3 outside the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine where devotees usually arrive round the clock after trekking for 13 km from the Katra base camp.
A high-level inquiry panel headed by Principal Secretary (Home) Shaleen Kabra, with Divisional Commissioner Jammu Rajiv Langar and Additional Director General of Police Mukesh Singh as its members, has been set up by Lieutenant Governor (LG) Manoj Sinha and asked to submit a report within a week.
Echoing Rani, 24-year-old Shubam of Laxmi Nagar Delhi said the police and CRPF personnel are managing the yatra and are discouraging people from staying back at the cave shrine after performing ‘darshan’.
“We faced no issue and the yatra is going on smoothly,” Shubam, who performed the pilgrimage along with his four friends, said.
Dharamveer (54), a resident of Mumbai, said his family was also lucky to have paid obeisance at the shrine without any trouble.
“We find nothing wrong with the arrangements. The pilgrims are moving in and out effortlessly. Police and CRPF personnel deployed along the route and at the cave shrine are doing a good job,” Dharamveer said.
The National Green Tribunal has put a cap of 50,000 pilgrims per day and keeping in view the COVID-19 pandemic, the Shrine Board had allowed 35,000 pilgrims to proceed for yatra on 31st December 2021 and for 1st January 2022.
Besides enhancing the security arrangements, authorities have also deployed additional staff to ensure strict adherence of COVID-19 guidelines.
Over a dozen persons who were not carrying the mandatory COVID test report were asked to return this morning, an official manning one of the centres enroute the shrine said.
More than 27,000 pilgrims visited the cave shrine on the first day of January, while over 55.77 lakh pilgrims offered their prayers at the shrine during the last year, officials said.
Only 17 lakh pilgrims, the lowest in over three decades, visited the shrine in 2020 when the shrine, for the first time in its history, remained closed for five months due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and reopened for the pilgrims on August 16, 2020.
From 13.95 lakh in 1986 when the Board took over the affairs of the shrine for better management, there has been a steady increase of pilgrim footfalls with each passing year, touching an all-time high of 1.04 crore in 2012 against 1.01 crore the previous year (2011).
The pilgrim arrivals at the shrine touched 31.15 lakh in 1991 and reached 74.17 lakh in 2007.
However, the number dropped to 67.92 lakh in 2008 which was attributed to the two-month-long Amarnath land row agitation but again went up to 82 lakh in 2009 and 87.2 lakh the next year (2010).
The pilgrim arrivals dropped from 93.24 lakh in 2013 to 78.03 lakh in 2014 and further to 77.76 lakh in 2015 and 77.23 lakh in 2016.
It increased to 81.78 lakhs in 2017 and 85.87 lakhs in 2018 but dropped to 79.40 in 2019 – the year when the central government revoked special status under Article 370 of the Constitution to Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcated the erstwhile state into two Union Territories.
In 2021, the officials said the highest number of 7,53,561 pilgrims visited the shrine in October followed by 6,46,415 in November, 6,39,162 in September, 6,27,828 in December, 5,25,198 in March, 5,21,970 in August and 5,00,671 in July.
The lowest number of 45,155 pilgrims in 2021 visited the shrine in May, while January recorded a footfall of 4,08,061 pilgrims, February (3,89,549), April (3,21,735) and June (1,98,490).
While most of the devotees undertake the arduous trek to the shrine, some reach there by helicopter service.