Even as the full scope of the tragedy that befell Sabarimala pilgrims at Pulmedu near Vandiperiyar in Kerala’s Idukki district on Friday night was yet to be known, the death toll in the stampede there rose to 102 on Saturday morning.
Of these 54, have been identified. There are at least five children among the dead. Most of those dead are believed to have come to Sabarimala from Tamil Nadu. Dozens injured-many of them seriously-are being treated at various hospitals at Pathanamthitta, Idukki and Kottayam.
The Kerala government will conduct a comprehensive enquiry into the incident the Home Minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan told The Hindu on Saturday. “The nature and scope of the enquiry will be announced by the Chief Minister who will visit the Sabarimala area today. All the same, the enquiry will be such that it covers all aspects of the situation,” he added.
The chain of events that led to the tragedy began shortly after 7 p.m. on Friday when lakhs of devotees witnessed the Makajyothi — a climactic event in the ‘Makaravikakku’ season at the hill-top shrine. Tens of thousands had gathered on Pulmedu, a hilltop from where it is believed that the ‘jyothi’ can be seen clearly. From Vandiperiayar to Pulmedu is a hazardous trip for both man and vehicle through a very narrow path that winds its way through the Periyar Tiger Reserve.
By the time the Makarajyothi was sighted at the Ponnambalamedu, it was already pitch dark at Pulmedu. Moments after pilgrims started streaming back down this jungle path-guided mostly by feeble torch lights-a jeep carrying pilgrims reportedly lost control, rammed another vehicle and overturned. This led to a sudden build up of pilgrims, all jostling to make their way down the steep path. Very quickly panic set in, resulting in a stampede.
“More people appear to have died of the stampede than from the collision between two vehicles,” said Rahul Easwar, the grandson of the ‘Thanthri’ of the Sabarimala shrine, who rushed to the accident site early on Saturday morning.
Though the stampede reportedly took place shortly after 8 p.m. on Friday, news of the tragic incident was slow to percolate to the outside world. For starters, this ruled out any immediate rescue response. Close to two hours later when police and rescue workers sought to rush the accident spot, they found themselves battling their way through sea of pilgrims and vehicles all rushing out of the Tiger Reserve area. Late on Friday night even after many bodies were shifted to trucks the rush of pilgrims made it near impossible for these vehicles to reach the nearest hospital at Kumili. The weeks-long Makaravilakku season was particularly crowded this time and major traffic hold-ups had been reported over the past few days.
The Director General of Police Jacob Punnoose told The Hindu that rescue efforts on Friday night were severely hampered due to the remote location of the accident site and due to the fact that there little or no lighting at the place. “Additional Director General of Police Hemachandran was at the accident spot till Saturday morning. According to his report it is very unlikely that there are any more dead bodies at the spot,” he said.
The state government has announced that it would foot the hospital bill of any Ayyappa devotee injured in Friday’s stampede. “It does not matter whether the treatment was done in a government hospital or a private one,” the Minister for Ports V. Surendran Pillai told The Hindu as he travelled to the accident spot, “we would also reach each and every body to the respective homes and give the family Rs. 5,000 as expenses for the funeral. There are any number of people who have lost clothing, bags and money in the incident. The government has decided to give them clothes, provide them money for food and for travelling back to their homes.”
District authorities have opened a control room in Kumily. The telephone numbers are 04869-222049, 252244.
Late on Friday night the Pulmedu stampede was declared a natonal disaster and Defence Minister A.K. Antony-who is in Kerala-asked the armed forces to assist in every manner possible in the rescue effort. A special team of the National Disaster Response Force is expected to reach Sabarimala shortly.
The third major tragedy to strike Sabarimala pilgrims in the last fifty years—after the cracker shed fire in 1952 and the 1999 stampede at Pampa—has also raised questions on the use of undesignated forest paths to reach the Sannidhanam of the Ayyappa temple.
Though the jungle path to Pulmedu has been used by Sabarimala pilgrims for many years now, it was only during the last few years that the area such a heavy influx of those seeking to seeking to escape the rush at the established pathways including the Pampa and Erumeli routes. However the police presence and security arrangements in the area have not kept pace with this surge of pilgrims.
“This path is not open to the public around the year,” Mr. Surendran Pillai explained, “pilgrims are allowed in only as a special case during the Makaravilakku. It is also not difficult for us to put permanent arrangements-whether lighting or other facilities-in place because we would have to get the permission of the centre, this being a reserve forest.”
The Superintendent of Police, Pathanamthitta K. Sanjay Kumar also told The Hindu that under the present scheme of things it was not possible to provide at Pulmedu the kind of police bandobust that exists at, say, the Pampa or at Sannidhanam. The police has well-oiled Sabarimala schemes for Pathanamthitra, Idukki and Kottayam, he pointed out.