Sabarimala: Officials pass the buck and fail to act

Sabarimala: Officials pass the buck and fail to act

For many reasons, the Sabarimala stampede which took 102 lives was a disaster waiting to happen.

Chief Minister Achuthanandan claims that the Government did everything that was possible to make the pilgrimage a smooth affair. But facts disagree. Pilgrims were made to stand in queues for 12 to 20 hours on most of the days to get a few seconds of darshan. The travails that the pilgrims were put through will be evident only if one understands the rituals of the Sabarimala pilgrimage. For pilgrims, the trek to Sabarimala is believed to have a cleansing effect on the body and a disciplinary effect on the mind.

Most pilgrims reach the banks of Pampa river via Chalakkayam, take a dip in its cold waters and climb the four-km-long hillock. Those who attend the Mandalapooja observe austerity for 41 days and others observe it for several weeks before setting out. During this period, the pilgrim abstains from non-vegetarian food and carnal pleasures. The pilgrims mostly set out in groups under a Guruswami who has climbed the hillock over 18 times carrying a cloth bundle called Irumudi kettu containing traditional offerings.

No caste and creed

Unlike certain Hindu temples, Sabarimalatemple has no restrictions of caste or creed. The temple is open to males of all age groups and to women who have either passed their fertile age and those before reaching puberty. Sabarimala Chief Executive Officer V S Jayakumar told Deccan Herald that close to 2.5 crore pilgrims had visited the temple this season.

However, former Devaswom Commissioner P V Nalinakshan Nair disputes this claim. He says the crowd could not have exceeded 1.2 crore and blames the disaster on crowd mismanagement. On several days, vehicles had been detained up to 30 kms away from Pampa for hours and pilgrim movement was regulated from Pampa as part of crowd control measures.

It was this unusual pressure on the pilgrims this season and the commercial interests of the vendor and transport company lobbies that led to the Pullumedu tragedy.  The hapless pilgrims were forced to abandon the ``official route’’ from Pampa to Sannidhanam because of this pressure.

It was common knowledge that entry into Uppupara and Pullumedu where the tragedy occurred was restricted. However, despite this restriction, pilgrims took their own routes and entered the official queue surreptitiously leaving those who stood for hours in queue frustrated. When pilgrims take alternative paths, it helps transport companies, which run vehicles, to fleece the pilgrims. The shops on the illegal paths also benefited from the brisk business. These lobbies wouldn’t have had it easy if the police and forest officials strictly enforced rules, point out Devaswom sources.

Meanwhile, the Police, Forest Department and Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), who are the key players at the hill shrine, are busy pinning blame on each other, rather than looking into the lapses.

Since the area fell under Periyar Tiger Reserve, the Forest Department has claimed that they were unable to provide sufficient facilities to pilgrims. ``Very often, we yield to pressure from Travancore Devaswom Board and permit pilgrims,’’ said a Forest official.

The police have claimed that there were about 200 cops at the site of the tragedy where 1.5 lakh pilgrims are said to have converged to view Makaravilakku.  However, early reports from Pullumedu had put the figure at just about seven policemen and several of them were also busy watching Makaravilakku before the incident occurred.  The TDB has accused the Police and Forest Department of failing to provide enough facilities to the pilgrims. This evidently brings out the lack of coordination among the three main agencies involved in the Sabarimalapilgrimage.

Masterplan ignored

However, what is more evident is the gross negligence of the Government in providing better facilities to pilgrims. The masterplan for Sabarimala’s comprehensive development which was accepted by the present Government four years ago is still in cold storage.

It includes aspects related to pilgrim management, development of base camps and transit facilities. It also looks into the land use, transportation linkages and incorporates latest technological and economically feasible solutions wherever possible.

Besides, the masterplan, two reports were prepared in 1992 and 2007 for improving facilities at Sabarimala, but have been totally ignored. The report in 2007 submitted by Justice (retd) K S Paripoornan had 70 recommendations and not even one has been implemented so far.

Things had indeed looked up when a nominated board was absent in the last season and the administration was under an IAS officer, who was appointed special commissioner. ``The board which is stuffed with political appointees now directly runs its affairs and officials have been reduced to yes-men. Corruption is rampant and there is no proper auditing of accounts. The state of affairs in the TDB is pathetic. No wonder such tragedies keep repeating,’’ said an official who retired from the board’s vigilance wing.   

Low toll of Keralites

The State Government can probably afford to be indifferent due to limited number of local casualties. Only five Malayalis have been killed in the man-made disaster, which has effectively reduced the inquiry to another routine exercise.

This would mean that the judicial inquiry into the Pullumedu tragedy if and when it takes place would meet the fate of the inquiry into the Thekkady boat mishap, which also consumed more lives of non-Keralites. Why, even the compensation has not been properly disbursed to the relatives of the victims of the boat tragedy.

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