Stampede at Sabarimala Stamp Them Out

On the eve of Makara Sankranti and Pongal festival, tragedy has struck Hindu pilgrims again. More than 100 Sabarimala pilgrims have lost their precious lives due to a stampede caused by an accident involving a jeep, which lost control and ploughed through the devotees returning after witnessing the Makara Jyothi, which is the culmination of the Makaravilakku festival. The loss of life was more, as the stampede happened in the dark of the night after 8 pm and that too on the Ghat section in a place called Pullumedu, which finds a place in the yet to be implemented “Sabarimala Master Plan”.

                This is not the first time a stampede had occurred in Sabarimala. On January 14, 1999, while the pilgrims pushed against each other for a glimpse of Makara Jyothi from Pampa the river-bank base, a stampede occurred and 52 devotees died. At that time itself Justice Chandrasekhara Menon, who was appointed to probe the tragedy, strongly recommended in his report that the Pullumedu route must be developed as a pilgrim-friendly section by providing all basic amenities for a hassle-free pilgrimage, as the route experiences increased flow of crowd every year.

                It is almost 12 years since the submission of Justice Chandrasekhara Menon’s report, and both the UDF and LDF governments have shown scant regards to the welfare of Sabarimala pilgrims. Ironically, the Chief Minister has announced a judicial probe of the present tragedy too! After sending the Justice Chandrasekhara Menon’s report to the dustbin, the Government of Kerala along with the central government, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Travancore Devaswom Board and the Supreme Court of India approved the “Sabarimala Master Plan” developed by IL&FS Ecosmart Ltd way back in 2005. Committees have also been formed; everything is on papers, but nothing in action.

                The number of pilgrims visiting Sabarimala has been increasing every year. This year for the Mandala Puja season alone, 60 million devotees have visited the temple. The temple revenue also increases accordingly. While last year’s revenue of Sabarimala was Rs 125 crore (both Mandala Puja and Makaravilakku Puja put together), this year it is expected to improve by at least 20 to 30 per cent. The total revenue of the government during the season is estimated to be Rs 2000 crore!

                On the other hand, there is no dearth for corruption and loot. While the sanitary condition is appalling with no proper toilet facilities for the pilgrims; rampant fleecing by vendors, hotels and restaurants; uncontrolled fleecing by bus operators; awful ‘Sabari Specials’ by Railways; fleecing of devotees from abroad by airlines; terrible roads; inadequate medical facilities and dreadful and arrogant behaviour by government officials and staff are perennial problems faced by the pilgrims, there is obviously an unholy nexus between the officials and contractors in looting the pilgrims. The government doesn’t seem to bother about the corruption going on, as evidenced by the various government departments indulging in disputes with each other.

                The governmental lethargy and indifference can be seen everywhere across the country. 147 devotees died in a stampede in the famous Chamunda Devi Temple on a hillock in Jodhpur Rajasthan on October 01, 2008, the reason being lack of facilities and improper mechanism to handle crowds. It happened during the Navratri festival. On August 03, 2008, 258 pilgrims died due to a stampede in Nainadevi Temple, Himachal Pradesh, again during festival time. In February 1992 during the Kumbakonam Mahamakam festival 49 devotees died due to a stampede caused by the arrogant cinematic show of the then Chief Minister and her friend.

                This is not restricted to temples and pilgrimage centers alone. We have seen loss of lives due to stampedes in marriage halls, schools and other places too. For example, 52 people died due to a stampede caused by a fire accident in a marriage hall in Trichy in January 2003; 91 small children died in a Kumbakonam school in July 2004 and 39 people died in a Yagasala outside Thanjavur’s Big Temple in June 1997. The nation has witnessed scores of such incidents in the last two decades. But, neither the governments nor the people have learnt any lessons from them.

                We must have a ‘scientific’ method of crowd management and security arrangement. This would be possible only when a thorough study is made with regards to the number of pilgrims, rate of increase in the number of pilgrims, importance of the concerned festival and the sanctity attached to it, duration of the festival, opening and closing times of the temples, number of entry and exit points and the entire approach to the pilgrim centers, etc. The technological advantages must also be utilised properly apart from providing enough strength of police force, security guards and home guards.

                Apart from the general and basic issues, in course of the analysis, one cannot help the feeling that both the central and the state governments have deliberately shown indifference to Hindus and the issues concerning their pilgrimage. The government provides all kinds of support, from money to amenities, to Haj Pilgrims. The Andhra Pradesh government was the first to subsidise Christians’ “pilgrimage” to Jerusalem and the same grant has been announced by both Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi and the Christians can be rest assured that every other government will follow suit. But the Hindu pilgrims are in fact taxed more! And no government is willing to help and support Hindus’ pilgrimages and no politician has either the courage or the passion to voice his/her support for the same.

                This must be viewed in the backdrop of two telling facts. One, Hindu temples and pilgrim centers are under the control of the governments unlike Churches and Mosques. Two, Hindu temples and pilgrim centers bring in huge revenue to the governments unlike the Haj and Jerusalem pilgrimages which fetch revenue only to foreign governments.

                Reaching the abode of Brahmma, the lotus feet of Bhagwan is the ultimate wish of any faithful devotee. But dying in a pilgrim center by stampede is extremely sad and painful. The central and state governments must approach the issue with an open mind, realise their mistakes, understand the magnitude of the problems and implement proper mechanisms for facilitating peaceful pilgrimage and happy celebration of festivals for the devotees and pilgrims, for human lives cannot be compensated with a few lakhs of rupees.

                Otherwise, the governments must handover the temples to Hindu bodies and autonomous boards, for India being a “secular” country, government controlling Hindu Temples alone is unconstitutional. Even while controlling the temples, the governments allow sacrilege, do not ensure security and do not assure safety.

                Safeguarding pilgrims and the pilgrimage centers is a divine duty and Hindu dharmacharyas and dharmabimanis will certainly do a better job than the ‘secular’ governments.

By BR Haran from Chennai

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