In flood-affected Sabarimala, SC verdict on women's entry adds to rebuilding woes, risk of stampede
While the infrastructure damaged during floods in Sabarimala are not expected to be revived before the commencement of the annual pilgrimage season, SC verdict has left the government with the daunting task of creating additional facilities for women within 50 days
The Supreme Court verdict allowing entry of women of all ages in the Sabarimala hill shrine has added to the woes of Kerala’s Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, which is reeling under the massive devastation caused by the mid-August floods.
The temple itself had suffered a loss of over Rs 100 crores on account of damaged roads, bridges, buildings, toilets and other common facilities. The shrine located at the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Western Ghat mountain ranges of Pathanamthitta district was cut off for more than a week following the flood in Pampa river.
While many of the damaged infrastructure are not expected to be revived before the commencement of the annual pilgrimage season beginning 17 November, the apex court verdict has left the government with the daunting task of creating additional facilities for women within a short span of 50 days.
Even though the authorities are not anticipating a large rush of women during the coming season, the government will have to be prepared to meet the exigency. The Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which administers the shrine, is now focusing on restoring the existing damaged infrastructure. A senior TDB official said that it will take at least three months to restore the damaged infrastructure.
"The government has set up a high-level committee to speed up the works in view of the coming season. We may be able to restore many of the lost facilities, but creating additional facilities for women within such a short time is an impossible task," said an official, who chose to remain anonymous.
He said that the TDB will have to establish facilities for not only the new brand of women devotees but also the supporting staff, who are required to ensure their safety and security. While the women devotees would need separate toilets, trekking route, resting places, bathing areas and queue complexes, the women police personnel to be deployed for their security will need separate accommodation facilities as well.
So far only 20 women police personnel used to be posted at Sabarimala during the pilgrimage season. Their main duty was to ensure that women aged between 10 and 50 do not proceed to the shrine. But with the Supreme Court allowing women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala shrine, women police are required to be present not only in the base camps but also on the temple premises.
State police chief Loknath Behra said that the number of women police will have to be increased substantially to shoulder the additional responsibilities. He has convened a meeting of senior officers later in the day to discuss the situation.
Behra said that implementing the court order would pose a big challenge for the state police. A major problem is the management of the pilgrim rush at 18 holy steps ('Pathinettam padi') and the queue near the temple. Only 75 devotees can climb the steps in a minute at present. When the rush mounts, policemen literally pull the devotees along the steep steps.
The steps are narrow and hence it is not possible to make separate queue for women.
Another concern of the police is the congested queues along the queue complex that starts from a steep and sloppy terrain. During the season, the queue often extends up to several kilometres taking up to 15 to 20 hours for the devotees to reach the temple, which is situated at an altitude of 1,535 feet above mean sea level. This increases the chances of congestion, which the cops feel could be misused by miscreants who sneak in as devotees.
The congestion could also lead to stampedes, which have already claimed several lives at Sabarimala in the recent years. Stampedes have been occurring mostly during the Makara Sankranti when large number of devotees throng the hill top to witness the Makaravilakku (celestial light).
A risk assessment carried out as part of Crisis Management Plan at Sabarimala by the Institute of Land and Disaster Management has identified eight points vulnerable to stampedes. The plan identified these points based on the crowd surge.
The chances for stampedes would increase when women also join the crowd. This can be avoided by providing separate space for women. However, there isn’t enough land with the TDB in most of these points for creating a separate enclosure.
TDB president A Padmakumar said the biggest problem faced by the board in augmenting the facilities for pilgrims is space constraints. The TDB at present has got only 50 acres of land at Sabarimala. It has been pleading with the forest department to allot 100 acres more at Sabarimala and 250 acres at Nilakkal for improving basic amenities for the pilgrims.
However, the forest personnel are not ready to part with more land since it comes under the buffer zone of the tiger reserve, which needs to be protected for saving the wild life. P Easa, an expert on wild life, said the TDB has already encroached upon large areas of the buffer zone and allocation of more land would do huge damage to the wildlife corridor.
Environmental experts are also concerned about the attempt by the TDB to acquire more land for constructing residential and commercial complexes at Sabarimala as it comes under the ecologically sensitive zone identified by the Western Ghats Expert Ecology Panel (WGEEP) led by Madhav Gadgil.
The region in and around Sabarimala falls in eco sensitive zone 1 and 2 as per the original Gadgil report and the subsequently modified report of the Kasthurirangan panel. Both reports have recommended a ban on land use for non-forest purposes or for agricultural activity in zone 1 and no new constructions in zone 2.
VS Vijayan, a member of the WGEEP, said the creation of additional facilities for women devotees as per the SC verdict could lead to new concrete construction at Sabarimala and warned that it would invite another ecological disaster like the one that occurred last month.
He also pointed out that the entire Western Ghats region does not have enough strength to hold new constructions. The environmentalist said that allowing more construction in the eco-sensitive area without considering its carrying capacity will spell danger.
The state government is already considering suggestions for not permitting new constructions on the flood and landslide-hit areas. Padmakumar, however, said that TDB would go for eco-friendly constructions for augmenting the facilities for the pilgrims.
Rahul Easwar, president of Ayyappa Dharma Sena and grandson of former Sabarimala chief priest said that the SC verdict would make the pilgrimage perilous not only for women but also for the traditional devotees visiting the shrine.
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