'No uncontrolled situation', says Kerala CM amid severe criticism over 'crowd mismanagement'

The Sabarimala temple has been witnessing a heavy rush of devotees since Dec 6

sabarimala-crowd-pti Ayyappa devotees wait to offer prayers at Sabarimala temple, in Pathanamthitta | PTI

Amid criticism over crowd management at the Sabarimala Temple in the wake of heavy rush, the Kerala government is taking all steps to streamline the arrival of devotees and ensure a hassle-free darshan for all. State Devaswom Minister K. Radhakrishnan has been deputed to the hill shrine even as Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan asserted the situation was under control. He will, reportedly, reach 'sannidhanam' after assessing the amenities being provided to the pilgrims at Erumely, Nilackal, and Pamba, a government official said.

The annual two-month-long Sabarimala pilgrimage season for this year began in late November. Pilgrims trek from Pampa—a place of 'triveni sangamam,' or a confluence of three rivers, Pampa, Kakki, and Njunungar—to the 'sannidhanam' of the temple, dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, as part of the pilgrimage.

Yesterday, a division bench of the Kerala High Court directed the authorities not to allow any pilgrims without a booking to the 'sannidhanam' for darshan. Incidentally, the state government decided to reduce the daily virtual queue bookings from 90,000 to 80,000. The evaluation meeting for Sabarimala, presided over by the chief minister, also directed to limit spot booking at the popular pilgrimage centre.

In this mandala season, in the first 19 days, the average pilgrim count was around 62,000. However, from December 6 onwards, this count shot up. On December 7, which also happened to be a 'change' day for those on police duty, more than a lakh pilgrims came to Sabarimala. Rajappan, a local journalist who has been reporting from Sabarimala regularly, told THE WEEK that the new batch of policemen was inexperienced in handling the crowd. On average, 73 to 75 people have to traverse through the narrow 'pathinettampadi' (18 steps) in Sabarimala in a minute. However, on December 7, this rate was not achieved. In fact, it was reduced to fewer than 50 people, affecting the speed and increasing the wait time for pilgrims, he said. Many pilgrims had to wait close to a day in a queue for darshan. In the subsequent days, scores of pilgrims abandoned their trek to Sabarimala at Pandalam due to traffic snarls and long queues. The government also faced criticism for not arranging access to drinking water and toilets for the stranded pilgrims.

Incidentally, on December 10, a young girl from Yelupuli died due to breathing issues, on her way to Sabarimala. The news of the girl's death drew sharp criticism from opposition parties. There is also fear that overnight stays on roads may attract attacks from wild animals. At Pamba, there have been multiple instances of skirmishes between police and pilgrims. Additionally, complaints have been raised about the behaviour of police officials towards pilgrims.

There was also criticism over the inadequate number of KSRTC services to transport pilgrims. Many of the KSRTC buses from Nilakkal to Pamba (18.4 km) were overcrowded.

What's the Kerala govt doing to address the situation

The state government introduced new police leadership to manage the situation in Sabarimala. Kochi City Deputy Commissioner K.S. Sudarshan was appointed the new 'Sannidhanam SP'. Thiruvananthapuram Crime Branch SP S. Madhusoodanan assumed charge at Pamba, while MSP Commandant K.V. Santhosh took charge of Nilakkal.

During a press conference held in Kottayam today, Chief Minister Vijayan said the government machinery was working diligently to tackle the situation in Sabarimala. “In the last mandala seasons, in the initial days, if the pilgrim count was 62,000, this year, from December 6 onwards, the average count of pilgrims increased to 88,000,” he said. “Around 20,000 pilgrims came via spot booking, and approximately 5,000 pilgrims arrived daily through the Pullumedu forest path. The total count went up to 1.2 lakh. Consequently, people had to wait for longer time to reach the sannidhanam. To address this, we have increased the darshan time by one hour.”

Devotees can have darshan for 18 hours a day. The timing was from 3am to 1pm and 3pm to 11pm. Earlier, it was from 4pm to 11pm.

The CM also announced that the government has installed 86 water kiosks in Nilakkal, 53 water kiosks in Pamba, and 50 water kiosks at Pamba. Also, the government has deployed tanker lorries to provide drinking water at Nilakkal.

For cleaning, 449 persons at Nilakkal, 220 persons at Pamba and 300 at sannidhanam have been deployed.

Additionally, the CM said that wherever there is a surge of Sabarimala pilgrims, the Devaswom Board is providing dry ginger coffee and biscuits. Vijayan also said that 16,118 police personnel have been deployed on Sabarimala duty, as opposed to 16,070 last time.

'There is no mismanagement in Sabarimala. The government is cautiously handling the situation at the pilgrim centre,” the CM said.

Vijayan also slammed the opposition and urged them not to use the Sabarimala temple for political gains.

"The government has allocated Rs 220 crores in the last seven years to incorporate Sabarimala into the master plan," he said. "The development activities, which are part of this plan, are being carried out with the approval of the High Power Committee of the High Court. Six temporary halts are under construction, benefiting Sabarimala. Rs 108 crores from KIIFB are being used to construct these temporary halts.”

2,350 toilets have been made available, including bio toilets - 933 at Nilakkal, 412 at Pamba and 1,005 at sannidhanam. The government has also installed 3,500 electric lamps at Nilaklal, 1,109 at Pamba and 1,927 at sannidhanam. Fifteen emergency medicine centres and 17 ambulances, too, are available. Pamba has been equipped with two ventilators and 25 IC units.


Join our WhatsApp Channel to get the latest news, exclusives and videos on WhatsApp