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Sabarimala: A litmus test

Authorities face many challenges at Sabarimala in the post-flood scenario, with the Mandalam-Makaravilakku season set to begin in about three weeks

With just 20 days to go for the start of the annual Sabarimala pilgrim season, the Pampa Manalpuram (sandbank) at the foothills of the holy hillock, which hosts pilgrims from different parts of the country and abroad, is yet to recover from the impact of the devastating deluge in August.

The area still wears a desolate look, a far cry from the usually vibrant atmosphere during the run up to the annual Mandalam-Makaravilakku pilgrim season.

The Travancore Devaswom Board has decided to make Nilackal, 16 km from Pampa, the pilgrims’ main base camp in the wake of the post-deluge situation at Pampa. But basic facilities are woefully inadequate at Pampa where pilgrims converge to take a holy dip in the river and offer obeisance (pitru-bali) to the ancestral spirits prior to their trek to the holy hillock.

Following the violent protests over the entry of women to the temple earlier this month, the government is gearing up for unprecedented security arrangements at Sabarimala during the annual pilgrimage.

The need to provide accommodation and other facilities for additional police personnel, including women, at Nilackal and Pampa poses another major challenge for the authorities.

The shortage of toilets is expected to be a major problem facing the pilgrims at Pampa as the deluge had destroyed three multi-storey blocks housing f 240 toilets and a few changing halls for women devotees on the river banks.

Pathanamthitta Collector P.B. Noohu told The Hindu that 110 bio-toilets would be installed at the Pampa Manalpuram, in addition to the existing 270 toilets. Mr. Noohu said the administration would provide more bio-toilets at Pampa, if needed.

The Pampa bathing ghats that were buried under huge sand deposits in the flood have not yet been restored, posing safety problems for the pilgrims taking a holy dip in the river.

The repair work on the annadana mandapam and the two hotel buildings that have been damaged in the flood is yet to begin.

Sewage treatment is expected to be a major issue at Pampa as the authorities have not started repair work on the 18-year old sewage treatment plant (STP) at Cheriyanavattom. The bridge across the Njunangar stream leading to Cheriyanavattom still remains buried under heavy sand deposits, posing problems to the STP repair and maintenance, official sources said.

The TDB has started laying new sewer lines from Pampa to the STP as the old lines have been badly damaged in the flood.

The Collector said the Sabarimala Sanitation Society would deploy 700 sanitation workers to keep Pampa, Sannidhanam, Nilackal, and the trekking path clean during the pilgrim season.

He added that the district administration would strictly enforce the ban on plastic in the sacred grove of Sabarimala.

The administration would constitute special squads to check fleecing of pilgrims at various shops and eateries at the Sannidhanam, Pampa, Nilackal, Laha, Perinad, and Vadasserikkara and other places on the main trunk road leading to Pampa during the pilgrim season.

Security arrangements

Inspector General of Police P.Vijayan said the Police Department would finalise a foolproof security plan for Sabarimala in the next one week. Mr. Vijayan said additional security care would be made at Sabarimala and Pampa during the pilgrim season.

Mr. Vijayan said the department had submitted a report to the High Power Committee (HPC) for implementation of the Sabarimala Master Plan with a proposal for modification of the queue complexes on the Marakkottom- Sannidhanam path for effective utilisation of the facility during the pilgrim season.

But, the HPC was yet to respond to the proposal, leaving the queue complexes of little use for crowd management this season too, Mr. Vijayan said.

Lack of coordination

The lack of coordination between the Forest Department and the TDB is another major issue that has plagued the development of the Sabarimala pilgrim centre over the years.

The TDB has failed to provide toilet facility inside the queue complexes following objection from the Forest Department. Work on the much publicised annadana mandapam at the Sannidhanam too is dragging on as its third floor and modern kitchen have not yet been completed.

At Nilackal

With the TDB deciding to make Nilackal the main base camp, the authorities are racing against time to augment water supply facilities. Mr. Noohu said Nilackal had a storage capacity of 40 lakh litres of water against the average daily requirement of 65 lakh litres during the pilgrim season. The Kerala Water Authority would supply 25 lakh litres of water a day to Nilackal from Pampa and Seethathode in tanker lorries during the pilgrim season, he said.

He said the TDB would be providing 500 container toilets and 100 bio-toilets, besides the existing 470 toilets, at the Nilackal base camp. The board would also provide shelters to accommodate 4,000 pilgrims at Nilackal during the pilgrim season, Mr. Noohu said.

Independent body mooted

The Justice Chandrashekhara Menon Commission that inquired into the 1999 stampede tragedy at the Pampa hilltop had suggested setting up of an independent administrative mechanism comprising experts for Sabarimala. The government gets an estimated revenue of not less than 1,000 crore by way of taxes during the Sabarimala pilgrimage season when as many as the population of the State visit the forest shrine. The TDB revenue collection from Sabarimala during the period too exceeds 250 crore.

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