Among India’s major pilgrimage spots, the hill-shrine of Sabarimala has a unique ethos that welcomes people from all religions. This year the number is one of the highest for the Makaravilakku season: upwards of one crore people. In recent years, especially in the wake of a stampede that claimed 53 lives in 1999, the Kerala government has taken several measures to improve crowd management around the shrine and along the access routes. However, these have been largely nullified by the phenomenal increase in numbers. Pilgrims continue to face extreme hardship all along the way. This season witnessed traffic hold-ups stretching up to 45 km (at one point) along the main route, inducing many pilgrims to take largely unsupervised paths that run through the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Uppupara or Pulmedu in Idukki district, where more than a hundred people tragically lost their lives on January 14, is along one of these alternative paths. An estimated 250,000 people were on the grassy slopes to watch the Makarajyothi — but there was no lighting and no regulation of movement. As a mass of people started their return journey in the dark, it became a free-for-all — and a wayward vehicle set off a deadly stampede. Many questions about the causes and circumstances of the tragedy remain.

The practical suggestions made by a succession of committees for a safe and satisfying Sabarimala pilgrimage need to be implemented, factoring in the rapid growth in numbers. The real challenge in Sabarimala is to retain the ecologically fragile environment — the forest setting at its verdant and serene best — while expanding infrastructure and creating sustainable basic facilities for optimal pilgrim turnaround, and to regulate and streamline the flow. Given that the temple area is confined and extremely difficult to access, there needs to be a comprehensive assessment of carrying capacities at a given point. On the basis of such data, access should be restricted through viable means: one suggestion, for example, was a system of e-registration of pilgrims. The Vaishno Devi temple in Jammu has an effective system of issuing ‘yatra slips’ to limit the number of pilgrims on any given day. More transit camps are needed to regulate the flow of pilgrims. One suggestion to mitigate the hardship came from the Kerala High Court: spread the pilgrim season through the year. The proposals in the Master Plan for Sabarimala that seek to lay equal emphasis on infrastructure development and the conservation of the region must also be acted upon quickly.

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