Garbage chokes Sabarimala

Garbage chokes Sabarimala

Yet another Sabarimala season has commenced. Every year over 30 million pilgr­ims arrive from across the country for darshan at the hill shrine perc­hed in the ecologically-sensitive Periyar Tiger Reserve during the season spanning from middle of November to third week of January.

Unfortunately, in the holy land of Lord of Aiyyappa, pilgrims are welcomed by mounds of stinking and nauseating waste. Every year, it generates 2,978 tonnes of waste and of this, 300 tonne is plastic, according to a survey conducted in 2005-06 as a prelude to prepare the Sabarimala master plan.

But environmental activists and forest officials aver that generation of waste is much more. They argue that the survey failed to give the full picture of the waste generation as it had not taken into account of the waste dumped in the forest areas.

The quantity is definitely more now with steady increase in number of devotees. Both sides of Pampa-Sannidhanam (shrine) trekking route and traditional walk ways and the forest within the 7-sq km radius of the shrine are literally carpeted with empty plastic bottles, thrown away containers of soft-drinks, rose water and oil, wrappers of biscuits and wafers, camphor pouches, plastic sacks used for bringing rice, jaggery, sugar and other groceries to the temple and eateries, leftover food and fruit peels.

The Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), the administrator of the temple, is primarily responsible for removal and disposal of waste in Sabarimala and the
surrounding areas. The waste in Pampa-Sannidhanam area is dispo­sed of by two incinerators.

The tiny diesel plants can handle only 17 tonnes at once. Even if they run round-the-clock, about 1,100 tonnes of waste could be treated during the season. Still, 1,878 tonnes of waste will be left untreated. Of this, roughly 187 tonnes could be plastic and other synthetic waste.  

“I would say that even the quantity of waste said to be treated is also cooked up,’’ said Sukumaran Nair, general secretary, Pampa Pariraksha Samiti, an NGO working for the preservation of Sabari Hills and Pampa river. “Worse, during the peak season, the incinerators cannot be operated owing to practical difficulties of taking the waste by tractors through the crowd to the plants,’’ Nair pointed out.

 The remaining waste after disposing of at the incinerators is dumped in the yards adjacent to them. Wild boars freely stroll around savouring the leftovers and other waste, turning the scene all the more messy and filthy.

Lack of an effective drinking water distribution system is fuelling plastic menace. Along with this, the dirty game of bottled water firms and shop keepers is further worsening the situation. Every season a few hundred taps are installed by the TDB to supply drinking water along the trekking path. But even before the start of the season, the taps are stolen.

Since the pilgrims have no easy access to drinking water along the trekking route and sannidhanam they buy bottled water. Market sources say that 18 million to 20 million bottles of drinking water are sold in a season. Result: 300 tonnes of plastic wastes lie scattered all around in Sabarimala.

TDB sources say that the turnout of the pilgrims during the monthly pooja is also on the rise. Onam and Vishu (the Malayalam New Year day) are mini seasons. No basic facilities, including drinking water, are provided to the pilgrims during that time also.

This leads to more heaps of plastic in Sabarimala. Having no choice, the forest officials burn a large portion of plastic waste.

Sources said that though the TDB had invited competitive bid to remove plastic from Sabarimala, there were no takers. High expenses for collecting the plastic waste and transporting it to Pampa make it a costly affair. Even the Forest Department has been looking for a plastic recycling unit, but is yet to find a willing firm.

Several huge heaps of plastic waste of past seasons are thrown in the forest around the shrine. And each season adds more monstrous mounds in the wild sanctuary posing threat to the flora and fauna. Wild  animal reach the temple premises once the din of the season is over for savouring over the leftovers.

“Carcasses of animals that have eaten plastic are seen after every season. Many deaths go unreported as they happen in the deep inside the forest,” recalls Dr Eswaran, a former vet of  the forest department.

Various agencies, including the Kerala State Pollution Control Board, which studied environmental impact of the pilgrimage have reported that 900 tonnes of human faeces reach the water bodies in and around Sabari Hill and holy Pampa every year after the season.

Highly polluted water is drawn by the water supply schemes of the town along down stream of Pampa. Over 30 lakh people along the stretch consume this water.

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