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.