Sabarimala, South India’s major Hindu pilgrim centre in Kerala, has witnessed two major stampedes, claiming a total of 155 lives in the past 14 years.
A stampede at the Pampa hilltop on the foothills of Sabarimala, claiming 53 lives on the Makaravilakku day (January 14) of 1999, and another that took a bigger toll of 102 lives at Pulmedu, along the forest path, in the Periyar Tiger Reserve leading to Sabarimala, again on the day of Makaravilakku, in 2011, had prompted the State government to take a series of crowd control measures.
The State machinery and the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), the administrative body of the temple, launched certain major initiatives, including a master plan for Sabarimala development, an effort to improve the amenities for pilgrims and bring in greater efficiency in crowd management.
It is no easy job to regulate the pilgrim flow at Sabarimala where devotees, officially estimated to be in their millions, arrive from different parts of the country in a short span of 64 days annually and the efficacy of the crowd control and security measures initiated by the State government after the two disasters are yet to be put to test. Lack of proper co-ordination among key stakeholders, including the TDB, the police, the Forest Department and various devotees’ organisations, has been identified as a major problem in crowd management.
K. Jayakumar, chairman of the high power committee for implementation of the Sabarimala Master Plan and former Chief Secretary, says the government should designate a safety commissioner with executive powers for Sabarimala, whose only responsibility would be pilgrim safety. The government had prepared a detailed safety manual for Sabarimala two years ago, defining the protocols to be followed by the department. However, the manual is yet to become operational, which leaves a big question mark over the safety of pilgrims, he says.
The single major safety initiative on the ground has been the launch, three years ago, of a Virtual Queue System for darshan during the annual pilgrim season. The system facilitates online booking on the exclusive website www.sabarimalaq.com. Pilgrims who have registered their names online can reach the sanctum directly, bypassing barricades and physical queues by showing the entry coupon collected from Pampa. The system has been getting good response from devotees, especially those coming from outside Kerala, said Additional Director-General of Police A. Hemachandran.
One company each of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and the Rapid Action Force (RAF) attached to the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) are stationed at Sabarimala, but it is a moot question whether this in itself can address the safety questions in full. There was a proposal to keep the Ayyappa Temple open throughout the year to avoid overcrowding of pilgrims during the two-month annual pilgrim season but, with not everybody agreed, no concrete decision has been taken. A proper crowd management system, instead of the prevailing crowd control mechanism of the police, is what Sabarimala badly needs, says Kummanam Rajashekharan, general secretary of the Sabarimala Ayyappa Seva Samajom. The TDB, he said, should also explore the possibility of installing a slow-moving escalator in front of the sanctum from where pilgrims can have a trouble-free glimpse of the deity.
The Justice Chandrashekhara Menon Commission, which inquired into the stampede at the Pampa hilltop in 1999, squarely blamed the government and the TDB for the accident, but the government is yet to act on its recommendations submitted on June 7, 2000. The Justice Hariharan Nair Commission, which inquired into the the Pulmedu stampede of 2011 had expressed displeasure about the laxity in implementing the recommendations of the Chandrashekhara Menon Commission. The State Government has, however, banned vehicular traffic on the fourth Mile-Uppupara route on the basis of the Hariharan Nair Commission’s report.