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The loss of around 100 lives on January 14 in a stampede that followed a freak vehicle accident on a narrow path to the hill shrine of Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala in Kerala is bound to reopen the debate about better policing and crowd management.

This shrine is among the top five rich temples in India. But considering the number of days, about 100, in a year it’s open to devotees, one can say it’s the richest. And, that alone will be the trigger for accusations that the temple management, Travancore Devaswom Board, and the Kerala government haven’t been serious about ensuring the safety of pilgrims.

In many ways, this temple is unlike many others, especially the customs and the preparatory penance the devotee has to undertake prior to the pilgrimage. The shrine is situated on a hill, Sabarimala, in a thickly forested area of Western Ghats. The main pilgrimage season is from mid-November to mid-January, with the most divine moment falling on Makara Sankranti, January 14. The temple is also open on the first few days of every Malayalam month (roughly the middle of the Gregorian calendar month).

The path to the peak where the temple is situated is supposed to be laden with thorns and pebbles to make the climb of the devotee as arduous as possible. In fact, in olden days, most of the pilgrims trekked through forests, fearing wild animals. Because of this belief, all attempts at better infrastructure (which obviously means making the climb easier and more comfortable) have been met with criticism that it goes against the basic tenets of the temple. “Only the devout who are willing to undertake the pain, need visit the temple. This is not a tourist resort,” I remember the angry comment of a temple management official.

Facilities have improved

In spite of such criticisms, infrastructure and comforts both on the way to the temple and atop, on the temple premises, have improved considerably. Having gone there many times, I would say that pilgrimage some 20 years back was much harder than it is now. If there aren’t any long queues, it takes, on an average, about three to five hours to climb from the base at Pampa to the hilltop temple.

Some sections of the path are now cemented. On route, there are now places to rest and small eateries that serve from soft-drinks and glucose to snacks. Atop there are plenty of restaurants and rest houses, so too modern communication facilities. Once upon a time, only when the pilgrim returned home, family members and friends heaved a sigh of relief, because there was just no way to communicate. There’s now even a cardiac care centre atop the hill. So comments that infrastructure and facilities at Sabarimala haven’t kept pace with time are not true.

The second criticism is about crowd management. Even this has improved a lot over the years, especially with the yearly increase in the number of pilgrims. Kerala Police personnel — barefooted and bearded — are specially assigned for crowd management at the temple. They are extremely courteous and helpful, so much so, that it comes as a pleasant surprise, used to as we are to the stereotyped rude-and-rough image of the average policeman on the street. There are lots of barricades and the queues are efficiently managed by the policemen.

Looking at the ever-increasing number of people who converge on the hill shrine, and given the lack of patience of the average Indian, crowd management is a huge challenge; and it must be conceded that the temple organisers and Kerala government are doing a commendable task.

Open the temple around the year

So, does this mean that everything is fine, and let pilgrims come at their own risk? No. There is definitely a problem out there, and to believe that there’s nothing more to be done is to be inexcusably insensitive. And the problem is the crowd, and this problem is getting bigger every year, as the number of devotees has been increasing.

Both the temple management and Kerala government have to seriously look into the many suggestions, and immediately start a process of debate in the public domain and put in place at least some of the suggestions before the next pilgrimage season.

Opening the temple around the year is one of the proposals. In that case, a good section of the annual crowd may get spaced out across the year bringing down the number of pilgrims in the Nov-Jan season. Already, a number of people prefer to visit the temple in the off-season – those first few days of the Malayalam month when the temple is opened for pooja.

But, opening the temple around the year may create more problems. There will be increased demand on security forces and other infrastructural facilities that will have to be scaled up proportionately. Also, the number of pilgrims may go up, with many people who never thought of making a trip, deciding to undertake one. So the problem of crowd, which one thought of solving, might end up becoming a bigger one!

While there’s no doubt that organisers are doing their best atop the hill, there’s not much vigilance around the hillock. It’s difficult but with the help of the forest department, the police will have to block unauthorised entry points through the woods to the shrine. Many reports have said that the spot where the tragedy took place was an unauthorised route that is opened during the peak season in violation of forest laws. Such loopholes will have to be plugged. There must be authorised routes to the peak and also authorised viewing points on Makara Sankranti – difficult but not impossible.

Regulate entry of pilgrims

This is one innovation that the government has been reluctant to look at. But this will have to happen, whether the temple management likes it or not. And it won’t be easy, since the logistics of issuing and checking these passes will be huge. But again, it’s definitely not something that can’t be put in place.

Pampa is the base of the hill from where pilgrims begin the climb after having a dip in the Pampa river. The bus-stands and vehicle parking areas are located at a distance of around a kilometre from this spot. The infrastructure around these areas has improved by leaps and bounds and there’s nothing stopping the authorities from scaling it up further.

There is a limit to the number of pilgrims the route to the hill and shrine itself can accommodate. And since most of the area around the shrine is thickly wooded and thus expansion is ruled out, the entry of pilgrims to Pampa and beyond has to be regulated. Some form of pass or ticket – free of cost, of course, since entry to the temple is free – with electronic tagging will have to be introduced.

For this, the whole crowd management system will have to be restructured and electronically networked. Numbered tags or passes can be made available through designated banks or similar institutions. At multiple points these passes will have to be checked and validated. There has to be an electronic queue system so that the amount of time pilgrims have to wait on route is considerably reduced. This will also help the security forces who are on constant vigil. With the sort of progress in computerised networking Kerala has achieved, this is definitely possible.

Most of the resistance to these measures have stemmed from the magnitude of the change the system will have to be subjected to. But, I don’t think there’s an alternative. When Sabarimala has modernised to this extent, all it takes to put in place an efficient crowd management system is only determined use of technology. And when the purpose is solely to ensure the safety of pilgrims, one wonders why there should be any objection at all.

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 9,000 times in 2010. That’s about 22 full 747s.

 

In 2010, there were 32 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 638 posts. There were 4 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 2mb.

The busiest day of the year was January 10th with 188 views. The most popular post that day was Colour of bra — is breast cancer a joke?.

 

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were mail.yahoo.com, maddy06.blogspot.com, twitter.com, facebook.com, and mail.live.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for mangalam dam, shopping stress, kim clijsters husband, blauk, and kim clijsters jada.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Colour of bra — is breast cancer a joke? January 2010
27 comments

2

Kim Clijsters’ 2009 US Open win — a tribute to motherhood September 2009
4 comments

3

Vandazhi visit May 2009
11 comments

4

Shopping: a stress buster for women? March 2009
12 comments

5

Back with BBC’s Test Match Special July 2009
3 comments

Despite having the freedom to dictate their sexual encounters, Swedish women face a troubling fact: Sweden has by far the highest incidence of reported rapes in Europe, and one of the lowest conviction rates in the developed world. (More from Time)

US President Barack Obama during his India visit said: “India is not an emerging country, it has emerged.” A few weeks later, French President Nicolas Sarkozy during his visit repeated it in another way: “Bangalore is a global city.” They were just amplifying a thought that has been expressed many times over by many people; especially in the West.

But did they actually mean it? Can we really say India is a global power? What does it take to be a global power? Are there any parameters that qualify a nation to be called a global power? And did we — India and Indians — pass that test with flying colours?

I think both Obama and Sarkozy were being plainly nice. India has great potential to be a global power; yes. But to mollycoddle ourselves into believing that we have reached great heights, or we are a superpower, is, I think, stretching things a bit too far; and dangerous too.

Reasons are plenty and there for all to see.

One, India has a lot to catch up on what are called ‘basic necessities of life’. It starts right there — food, clothing and shelter. There are far too many Indians who have barely anything to eat; barely anything to wear; and barely a roof over their head. While a majority of Indians don’t have access to clean drinking water, and consequently are forced to drink whatever is available, the minority of urban dwellers either buy packaged water or are forced to drink boiled water. Ditto with food – most people, who are lucky to get food, are constantly worried about either lack of hygiene or food poisoning.

Many centuries ago, when civilizations began to develop, one of the focus areas was transportation; because that’s essential for the growth of a community and thereby the state at large. Cut to the present, and look at the condition of, something as basic as, roads. There’s no need for any elaboration. In many states, governments still struggle to provide reliable and good public transport to its citizens.

We have failed to understand that bad roads have a deleterious, cascading effect on many aspects of our lives, like our health (the reason for the ubiquitous back pain can be traced back to bad roads), loss of time (and thereby poor productivity), traffic pileup (vehicles move slowly over potholed roads) and consequent stress.

The third point we need to really worry about is our poor civic discipline. It’s a lot about how we behave in public. And we don’t have a great track record in that. There’s a huge disparity between our private conduct and our public conduct.

For example, in our personal space, we are obsessed with cleanliness; but not so when it comes to public space. In private, within our families, we emphasise a lot on virtues like respect for elders and patience; but not so when it comes to public space, where human interactions are marked often by discourtesies, insensitivity, and even rudeness. The behaviour of drivers behind the wheel is a typical example.

There are parents who teach their children to say ‘good morning’ and ‘thank you’; but some of them themselves are guilty of not saying ‘thank you’ to, for example, a hotel waiter or a bus conductor. Again, as individuals we are careful about spending our money; but not so when it comes to someone else’s (government’s) money. Outside a patrol pump, if there’s no stock of fuel, we see a board: “No stock”, but rarely, “Sorry, no stock”.

Private enterprises are relatively more successful than public enterprises, precisely because of this reason. Our private conduct patterns tend to get extrapolated in private enterprises. There is institutionalised discipline and accountability. But, when it comes to state matters, or public enterprises, it’s an attitude of “who cares”.

Our public conduct, basically our attitudes to society (the people at large), is what translates into the synergised product of social wealth that comprises our intellectual prowess, economic muscle, military might and spiritual strength. As individuals we have progressed by leaps and bounds, both educationally and monetarily; but we haven’t been able to carry that sense of accomplishment beyond the four walls our homes. Indians are successful individually, but a failure in public.

That leads me to the fourth point — failure of the state. The state is made functional by individuals in positions of power. And individuals’ inability to discipline themselves in public has made the Indian state abysmally weak. This dysfunction is most visible at the micro-level.

Here’s an example. In the locality where I live in Bangalore, five days back, I noticed a minivan stuffed with clothes, furniture, boxes and bottles parked beside a pavement, where normally vehicles aren’t parked. Mysteriously it remained parked there for the next two days. On the third day, a small tent came up on the pavement near the vehicle; and a man was blissfully sleeping under the tent. There was a small board written in Hindi: “Traditional herbal medicines for common ailments available. Rs 20.”

It’s impossible that no policeman noticed that vehicle, at least the beat constable would have. Probably, to be fair, the constable did alert his superiors. Someone along the chain upwards has diluted the importance of the situation, took it lightly and let that van be where it was. On the fifth day, however, the van vanished – either those quacks didn’t get any customers (the most likely case) or the police drove them away (shifted the problem elsewhere).

This is just one example. There are thousands of such seemingly harmless, seemingly trivial violations of our civic discipline. The violation happens at multiple levels, and consequently the damage to the society is manifold.

On the one side, we have individuals in positions of power who themselves bend the rules of law, and on the other end, we have no one to penalise the recalcitrant individual who bends the rule of law. It’s a dangerous combination that is wreaking havoc in this country.

Disgraced former telecom minister A Raja, may not have been legally convicted of any misconduct, but in the eyes of the public he is very much the notorious personification of a social ill. We have Rajas at the macro-level because of the numerous anonymous Rajas at the micro-level.

Is it so difficult to keep our streets clean? Is it so difficult to have good roads? Why do we become so violent at the slightest provocation? When each Indian is so enterprising, why doesn’t it all add up to be a superpower India?

If India needs to be a superpower, it has to get a number of these basics right. There has to be a lot more of India in every Indian. If not, individually we will remain strong, but as a country we will remain weak and vulnerable. If someone is riding roughshod over us, probably it’s because of our weakness rather than their strength.

(Crossposted from Kaleidoscope)

An interesting article from the lastest issue of Time…. especially in the context of Obama saying that India is "not just rising, but it has risen".

"It’s a source of constant conflict and great contradictions, explaining why gleaming highways rise up effortlessly while decent sewer lines do not. There’s a risk that infrastructure asset bubbles will form — overfunded, underused toll roads, for instance — while basic services languish. How this tension is resolved will determine what kind of economic superpower India will become."

http://t.co/jY3B72p

KOHIMA WAR CEMETERY

The highlight of today was a visit to the Kohima War Cemetery. This is in memory of the soldiers of the Allied Forces who lost their lives fighting the Japanese Army during the World War II.

There are stone inscriptions of over 2,000 soldiers, who successfully stopped the advance of the Japanese troops at the Garrison Hills after a bloody battle in 1944. Relatives and friends — from abroad too — come to pay homage here.

We found flowers, and black and white photos placed at one tombstone: a very moving site. We go into a contemplative mood in the sombre air of the memorial wonderfully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

EVERYTHING IS DELICIOUS

Dog is said to be man’s best friend, and I have noticed that an anti-dog remark can excite people so much they can become emotional, angry and probably even violent! So don’t read further, if you are a passionate dog-lover!

Nagas are meat lovers: and the flesh of two animals they enjoy are that of pig and dog. Pork is popular elsewhere in India, but not dog meat. I am told it’s very tasty.

We went to a market in Kohima, popularly called the ‘kheeda market’ where we saw frogs and worms of various types kept for sale. There was also a rabbit, and flesh of dog and deer.

On the other side of the market were the more familiar tomatoes and potatoes. There was also the Naga mirchis, said to be the hottest in the world, having beaten a Mexican one reacently, I am told. I did get to have a bite at that yesterday: the tiniest of the bit set mouth aflame, as it were.

END OF TOUR

In the evening, we reached Dimapur. This railway station is the only one in Nagaland: a good, small one. The train to Guwahati was half an hour late. Tomorrow morning we reach Guwahati around 5.30; then we head back for Bangalore.

A delightful holiday is coming to an end. Got to see a lot more than we ever expected to. This entire region holds so much for a tourist. We rush off to foreign destinations for holiday; but the north-east reminds us that there’s a lot to see, explore and enjoy within our own India.

We keep hearing about Nagaland, but mostly all negative news. But today, after getting to know about the history of the state, about the tribals, their culture and traditions, I realised how ignorant we are.

We got an opportunity to see the typical manner in which Nagas welcome guests. Naga men dressed in their typical costume with head gears and spears demonstrated their war-cry. A group of six young girls dressed in what resembled a school uniform, performed a a captivating musical dance. Music is so much a part of every Naga.

We went to the heritage village where we saw models of houses of different Naga tribes. Then we went to the home of a Naga family, where the gracious hosts offered us rice beer, that’s nothing but fermented rice water: too light to get you intoxicated. There we saw the huge container in which they store rice. Rice is their staple diet and they love meat. ”They eat anything that moves. And dog meat is a delicacy,” we were told. For a typical Naga, there’s nothing like a vegetarian diet!

The state has tumultous history; sort of an unsettling contrast when we see the beautiful landscape all around the place. Currently the entire region is in a transition stage. The local people are being integrated into the mainstream in a manner that is acceptable to them; with the result there is peace all around. It’s hoped that the new generation will carry on bringing about the change and usher happier times for this entire region.

Zakhama, some 25 km from Kohima, was a too cold, colder than Shillong. Must be 15 degrees or thereabouts. We were told that yesterday was sunny and bright. But today, the whole place is covered with mist. Visibility is as low as 50 to 100 metres. We were told that during winter, if you keep the door open, you’ll have thick mist right inside the house!

Tomorrow, lots more to see and know about the local traditions and customs here.

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