Ban on vehicular traffic, fears over dam issue cited as reasons
There has been a marked decline in the number of pilgrims from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh on the Kumily-Uppupara-Pulmedu-Paandithvavalom route to Sabarimala this year. Officials attribute this to a few factors such as the ban enforced by the Forest Department on public transport vehicles on the Kozhikkanam Pulmedu route and the public scare triggered by rumours reportedly spreading in Tamil Nadu over the Mullapperiyar issue. The Travancore Devaswom Board's (TDB) admission before the Kerala High Court that the ‘jyoti' viewed atop Ponnambalamedu was man-made may have also resulted in the poor pilgrim turnout to Pulmedu, said a shopkeeper at Vandiperiyar.
With hardly 36 hours left for the Makaravilakku festival, Pulmedu and Uppupara wore a ‘near-deserted look' on Friday, but for a few vehicles of the Police, Health Department and the Fire and Rescue Services that have been parked there. Pulmedu and Uppupara used to be a beehive of activity during the Makaravillakku festival until last year when a stampede claimed 102 lives at Pulmedu. Business at various hotels and petty shops too has been hit and there are fewer taxi jeeps and autorikshaws at Vandiperiyar. The police have opened a control room at Uppupara. Pilgrim passage through the door-framed metal detector installed at Pulmedu has been thin.
Kumanam Rajashekharan, Sabarimala Ayyappa Seva Samajom (SASS) general secretary, alleged that the ban on vehicular transport on the Uppupara route was a ploy to protect Forest Department officials who were responsible for the stampede last year. He alleged that there was every reason to suspect a conspiracy, involving Forest Department personnel, behind the ban on vehicular transport to Uppupara.
He said the government should have permitted at least KSRTC bus services between Kumily and Uppupara as in the previous years. TDB president M. Rajagopalan Nair said the board had taken all measures to ensure the safety of pilgrims at Sabarimala as well as Pulmedu during the Makaravilakku festival.
Devaswom Minister V.S. Sivakumar said the government had made elaborate security and crowd control arrangements at Sabarimala and Pulmedu. Solar lamps have been installed in areas where pilgrims congregate to view the Makarajyoti.
Adequate number of police personnel have been deployed at Pulmedu and Sabarimala for crowd management. Arrangements have been made for supply of drinking water at Pulmedu and Uppupara, he said.
TDB president said a senior priest would perform the deeparadhana at Ponnambalamedu, a hillock facing Sabarimala, soon after the deeparadhana to be held at the Ayyappa temple at 6.30 p.m. on Makaravilakku day on Sunday.
The Mala Araya Samajom, an association of the Mala Araya tribe, has launched an agitation claiming their right to perform deeparadhana at Ponnambalamedu. However, the TDB chief said the board's decision not to permit any of the tribal organisations that had approached it seeking permission for performing deeparadhana at Ponnambalamedu was strictly on the basis of the affidavit it had submitted before the High Court and the court direction in this regard.
Mala Araya Samajom leaders P.K. Bhaskaran and K.K. Gangadharan said they would not rescind their decision to perform deeparadhana at Ponnambalamedu on Makaravilakku day. The Akhila Kerala Malavedar Sabha too has put its claim to perform deeparadhana at Ponnambalamedu.
Meanwhile, the SASS leader has called upon the TDB to address the genuine demands of the tribal people and resolve the issue amicably.