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Could the Sabarimala tragedy be avoided?

January 16, 2011 17:36 IST

The Sabarimala stampede has sparked criticism of Kerala government and the temple board for alleged failure to act on recommendations of the panel, which probed a similar tragedy in 1999, to develop alternative routes to the hill shrine to check recurring mishaps.

Opposition parties and Hindu outfits on Sunday alleged that the Pullumedu disaster which claimed 102 lives could have been avoided if the report of the judicial probe into the 1999 tragedy had been implemented in right earnest.

On January 14, 1999, 52 pilgrims, mostly from Andhra Pradesh, were killed in a stampede at Pampa, the riverbank base camp on the foothills of Sabarimala Lord Ayyappa temple. Justice Chandrasekhara Menon, who probed the tragedy, in his report had suggested the need to provide basic amenities on the Pullumedu route through which a large number of pilgrims from Tamil Nadu travel.

The report had pointed out that over 60 per cent of devotees coming to Sabarimala during the pilgrimage season are from other states and this route provide them easy access to temple towns like Madurai on their return journey.

The panel also made a strong case for developing Vandiperiyar route through which at least 40 per cent of pilgrims could be diverted to avoid huge rush and latent dangers along the Pampa route. One of the main recommendations of the report was the urgent need to develop an alternate base camp at Uppupara, the spot where Firday's stampede happened.

Senior Congress leader and former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy held that the government did not start the work on a transit camp even though the land for such a facility had been identified five years back by the then United Democratic Front government.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad state general secretary Kummanam Rajasekharan alleged that the government and Travancore Deveswom Board, which manages the temple, had been 'sleeping' on the commission report. "The announcement of a judicial probe into Friday's tragedy by Chief Minister is only a ritual. What is the use of such probes if the proposals made by the earlier one is totally neglected," Rajasekharan said. However, the report had made it clear that without assuring basic facilities and security, pilgrims should not be allowed to trek through the Pullumedu route.

It suggested that only after creating facilities like resting places, vehicle parking, toilets, small eateries and shops and proper lighting the devotees be allowed to pass through the route.

The report also wanted the trekking path along the Pullumedu route to be widened at least by 4 meters and iron railing to be erected on either side. It suggested that improvement of facilities should be in tune with Sabarimala Master Plan.

All the panels that looked into problems of the hill shrine, surrounded by a dense forest, had suggested that the plans should be of long-term perspective taking into account the requirements at least for the next 25 years. However, critics say that the master plan is virtually in cold storage and the TDB, which manages the shrine, is interested in putting up concrete structures in and around the temple, which neither serve the devotees nor environmentally feasible.

According to Hindu outfits, the government also turned a blind eye to intelligence reports suggesting deployment of more police contingents for crowd control and security along Pullumedu route through which the pilgrim flow has been increasing every year. Both the UDF and Left Democratic Front that ruled the state alternately did not bother to carry out these proposals, the VHP leader said.

Reacting to the criticism, officials said that the government had constraints in developing Sabarimala like any other major temple sites as the shrine is located in an ecologically sensitive spot in the Periyar Tiger Reserve.

A senior official, who did not wish to be identified, said the government was facing difficulty in developing the Pullumedu route as it might harm the environment. Once the route is developed it would become difficult to check flow of vehicles and human interference. Pullumedu mostly comprises grasslands on the steps of the Western Ghats, a conducive habitat for tigers and leopards, he said.

Meanwhile, the probe by Crime Branch wing of the Kerala police to ascertain the cause for the Sabarimala stampede began on Sunday. Crime Branch officials visited the accident spot and took evidences. Forensic experts also visited Pullmedu area where the mishap occurred on Friday, officials said.

Besides, the Crime Branch probe, Kerala government had also decided to hold a judicial inquiry into the mishap.

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