Issue accentuates difficulty of van operators, drivers who are already bogged down by lean marriage season

With the ongoing tension on the borders of Tamil Nadu and Kerala over the Mullaperiyar dam issue snowballing into a major controversy, various sections of society, even in the districts far away from the borders, have started feeling the pinch.

It is the van drivers and owners in central districts who bear the brunt of Mullaperiyar row and subsequent insecurity to the pilgrims of Iyyappa devotees largely from Tamil Nadu offering worship at Sabarimala. Almost all the van drivers and owners have been deprived of their usual trip to Sabarimala and have been finding it difficult to eke out a livelihood. All their hopes of making the most of the Iyyappa season have been belied. With no possible immediate solution in sight, these drivers and owners have been left in the lurch. They all have suspended the trips to Sabarimala for the past 15 days.

“This is the most favourable season for us and the raking up of this controversy at this peak season has badly hit the cable operators and the drivers very badly. We have not witnessed such a situation in the past”, a cross section of drivers lamented. They are sitting with their fingers crossed with the hope that the controversy will end soon and they will be able to make some revenue at the remaining Sabarimala season.

The van drivers and owners say that December to mid-January is normally the peak period, when Iyyappa devotees, mostly in groups rent vans for their pilgrimage. Coinciding with the lean marriage season , Iyyappa season comes as a boon to cab operators and drivers to make good the loss. The absence of ‘muhurtham' season during this period is being compensated by the Sabarimala season. They allot a part of the profit earned during this period for the annual maintenance of vehicles and also for repayment of loan dues.

A.Saranraj, president of the Jawaharlal Nehru Van Drivers and Owners Association, says the problem is acute on the Kumily sector, the shortest route to reach Sabarimala. The vehicle leaving Tiruchi city will be able to reach Erimalai via Theni, Cumbum and Kumuli on the same evening. Although alternative routes via Shencottai, and Valaiyar were available, van drivers and owners do not prefer these circuitous routes, as it would be too unaffordable for the devotees.

Members of the Anna Tourist Van Drivers Association near the central bus stand already feel the pinch. “We would have netted a profit of Rs.9,000 through three trips till now during this season. On an average, a driver earns an income of Rs.3,000 over a period of five days,” says K.A.S.Sekar, president of the Association.

S.Anandan, another driver, says it is the safety and security of the devotees which counts most. The drivers being the target of attack at Kerala, none of the city drivers dared to accept any trip to Sabarimala.

With the traffic via Kumily totally closed, and even movement via Shencottai and Valaiyar too proving to be dangerous, many Iyyappa devotees, who are yet to commence their pilgrimage, are in a fix . “I have been visiting Sabarimala for over 25 years. For the past many years, a large number of devotees from our village and surrounding areas used to visit Sabarimala in more than ten buses. Now we are yet to plan our trip and are not sure whether we will be able to make it”, says P.Ravi of Valanadu Kaikatti village near Manapparai with sadness writ on his face.

Meanwhile, the Sri Iyyappan Temple in the heart of the city, has been receiving a steady stream of dejected devotees of the northern districts, who could not proceed to Sabarimala, to complete the rituals normally performed at the end of the pilgrimage at Sabarimala. “So far, we have been making arrangements for devotees to commence their pilgrimage, but now we are also making special arrangements to perform rituals which are performed at Sabarimala here,” say temple sources.