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Surfeit of studies and panels, all to no avail

Radhakrishnan Kuttoor
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Several committees have articulated the need to give utmost importance to pilgrim needs

If studies and suggestions could solve problems, Sabarimala would have been a better place by now.

A dozen study reports on Sabarimala, including those submitted by the Justice T. Chandrashekhara Menon Commission, which inquired into the Pampa Hilltop tragedy that claimed 53 lives in 1999, the Legislative Committee on Environment, chaired by A.V. Thamarakshan, and the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament, chaired by Buta Singh, in 2004, had been shelved in the past two decades.

Mr. Buta Singh led the committee to Sabarimala on Makaravilakku day in 2004. Its report described the sad state of affairs at the pilgrim centre: “The committee is horrified at the inhuman condition in which the pilgrims stay at the Sannidhanam. The total lack of sanitation, clean drinking water, hygienic food, toilet facilities, etc., in a place visited reportedly by two to three crores of pilgrims within a short span of two months cannot be explained away by saying that the concept of ‘comfort' is alien to the ethos of Sabarimala pilgrimage. This is an extraordinary situation. It is true that the pilgrims who visit Sabarimala do endure all kinds of hardships. They are driven by a deep devotion which makes them brave all kinds of adversities. But it is clearly impermissible for responsible authorities to use it as convenient pretext for inaction and leave them to fend for themselves.”

Mr. Buta Singh, in his report submitted to Parliament on February 5, 2004, said that it was absurd to suggest that the huge mass of pilgrims coming to Sabarimala should be stopped at different points, far away from the temple area, and the pilgrims' flow should be regulated in such a way that only a manageable crowd remained on the temple premises at any given time.

The Travancore Devaswom Board had represented to the committee that 500 hectares of forest area, comprising the Ayyappa temple and its surroundings, be delinked from the Periyar Tiger Reserve and developed without causing environmental degradation.

The committee suggested that the government consider the request in its totality. The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests had informed it that Sabarimala did not fall in the core area of the reserve and was situated in the buffer zone.

“The reality of the pilgrimage and the massive flow of pilgrims into the temple have to be recognised and a realistic solution to the core problems should be chalked out with the broader considerations of the ecology of the region,” its report said.

“The committee has witnessed the huge rush of devotees who surge forward to have a darshan of the deity. Many of them do not get even a glimpse of the deity due to the rush and the police push them away the moment they reach before the sanctum sanctorum. This is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs and the Travancore Devaswom Board as well as the police should find a way to help all devotees to have a satisfying darshan.”

In its closing remarks, the report said, “Sabarimala, with its uniqueness, ranks as one of the major pilgrim centres in the whole world.

But it has not received much of national attention so far and its development into a national pilgrim centre suffered due to the absence of a perspective in the stakeholders. Sabarimala should be developed like the Vaishnodevi Temple in Jammu or other major pilgrim centres in India.”

It further recommended that a committee consisting of the Union Minister of Environment and Forests and the Ministers of Forests and Devaswom in Kerala be constituted at the apex level to give an impetus to the process of Sabarimala development, as it felt that such a high-level political body would be able to sort out many tangled problems remaining unsolved all these years. Mr. Chandrashekhara Menon, in his report, recommended setting up of a nine-member statutory body for Sabarimala administration.

The body should have a representative of the State government in the rank of Additional Chief Secretary, a representative of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, the Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), a member of the Devaswom Board or its nominee, the Sabarimala Tantri, a representative of the Pandalam royal family and three Hindus appointed by the Kerala High Court.

The body should hand over the excess income received from Sabarimala to the Devaswom Board after meeting the temple expenses, which naturally included steps for the safety and convenience of the pilgrims.

The commission suggested that the help of voluntary agencies could be encouraged for health care, sanitation, supply of food and health drinks to pilgrims and so on, it said.

The commission said, “It is the duty of the government to see that the pilgrims coming to Sabarimala do not get injured in their trip, that well-laid roads are there, proper and strong barricades are put up in the elevated portions and no overcrowding which might lead to stampede and other tragedies takes place. If any such things happened on account of the breach of duty of the government, the State cannot wash its hands of by stating that it was inevitable in the nature of the huge assemblage of pilgrims.”

“In the nature of Article 21 of the Constitution, strict liability is on the State to see that the right to life of a citizen is properly safeguarded,” the report said.

Assembly panel report

The report submitted by the 13th Legislative Committee on Environment had discussed in detail the measures to be adopted to avoid accidents at Pampa, Sabarimala and Pulmedu.

The Parliamentary Committee on Sabarimala, headed by the former Union Minister of State for Railways O. Rajagopal, constituted by the former Lok Sabha Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi, called for a detailed survey of unauthorised constructions in and around Pampa and the Sannidhanam.

A study report submitted by the Kerala Forest Research Institute maintained that the Devaswon Board should imbibe a pilgrim-centred approach rather than a revenue-centred one.

All these reports and more have been shelved for reasons best known to the authorities, leaving the hapless pilgrims at the receiving end.

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