Will decide in 4 weeks on rehabilitation of mule owners: J&K Govt to SC

New Delhi, Aug 1: The Jammu and Kashmir government today told the Supreme Court that it would take a decision within four weeks on the issue of rehabilitating mule owners operating along the track between Katra and Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu.
A bench of justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta was told that a state advisory council would be set up within two days and they would consider the rehabilitation plan prepared last October in its totality along with all other stakeholders, including representatives of mule owners.
The bench observed that mules have to be phased out to the extent possible and wondered as to why the rehabilitation plan prepared by the state in consultation with the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board and other stakeholders was not yet finalised.
Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Maninder Singh and advocate Shoeb Alam, appearing for Jammu and Kashmir, said that a decision in this regard would be taken within three weeks from the date of constitution of the state advisory council.
During the hearing, the bench expressed concern that mule dung was lying on the track to the shrine and asked the shrine board to ensure that the path was kept clean.
The counsel appearing for activist Gauri Maulekhi, who had filed a plea in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) seeking removal of horses and mules from the path to the shrine, placed some photographs before the court and said that mule dung was lying all over the place and it was clogging the sewer causing environmental degradation.
Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for the shrine board, countered the submissions and said around 4,600 mules were operating there and the board was ensuring cleaning of the track.
“If you (board) want to keep the shrine dirty, please say that. If the answer is no, then you do not need to contradict him (petitioner) in everything. You cannot say that I want to keep the place clean but I will not do anything,” the bench said.
Rohatgi told the court that cleaning of track was done twice a day by around 1,000 staffs of the board and it was not possible to put “basket behind every mule”.
The ASG told the bench that there was nothing “sinister” if mules were operated there and they would ensure that the pollution level was under control.
“If we can manage the pollution level then why should they (mule) stop? We will take more steps for controlling pollution,” he told the bench.
The petitioner’s counsel told the bench that authorities do not want phasing out of mules from there due to “political compulsion” and the board, which has a corpus of around Rs 500 crore, want more and more people to come to the shrine so that they could earn more.
“They (board) do not force people to go there. People go there out of their religious belief. The board do not invite people there,” the bench said.
The bench asked the board about the number of battery-operated vehicles being used there for ferrying pilgrims to the shrine.
One of the officials of the board told the court that there were 26 such vehicles and each one of them makes three trips a day and passengers were charged around Rs 500 for one way.
Rohatgi told the bench that no mules were operating on the new track to the shrine and more battery-operated vehicles could hinder movement of pedestrians who walk to the shrine.
“Fact of the matter is that mules have to be stopped to the extent possible,” the bench observed, adding, “There has to be a solution.”
The court, which posted the matter for hearing on August 30, said that all stakeholders should sit together and chalk out a plan about rehabilitation of mule owners.
The apex court had earlier taken note of the problem of pollution at Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu and the surrounding areas and had made it clear that Jammu and Kashmir government and shrine board would have to “protect and preserve” both.
The NGT had earlier capped the number of visitors to the shrine at 50,000 per day. (Agencies)