Ayyappa devotees at Sabarimala temple, in Pathanamthitta. File Photo: PTI

Pilgrims return without entering Sabarimala as police, TDB lock horns over crowd control

Pathanamthitta: The poor crowd management measures adopted to control the huge rush of devotees to Sabarimala has prompted many pilgrims to turn back home without completing their pilgrimage.
According to reports, many pilgrims from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and different parts of Kerala are returning home without visiting the hill shrine. Many returned home after visiting the Valiya Koyikkal Sree Dharma Sastha Temple in Pandalam as the crowd at Sabarimala has spiralled out of control, reports said.

The numbers game
The Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) and the Kerala Police are facing flak for their failure to control the crowd effectively to reduce the waiting time even as they locked horns over the pilgrim statistics.

The police allege that the Devaswom Board, which used to allow 5,000-6,000 pilgrims to the shrine outside of virtual queues, is now admitting five times more people in spot bookings.

According to police, when 30,000 more people arrive in addition to the 80,000 people in the virtual queue, the control measures go haywire. However, the Board has denied this.

While 62,000 devotees visited the temple on December 7, 72,430 people visited the temple on the same day last year. The corresponding figures for December 9 are 67,000 and 99,000 devotees, respectively, TDB sources said. The Board has accused lapse in coordination due to the change in police duty.

It is also alleged that the duty officer at Sannidanam did not give proper instructions to control the devotees at Pampa in proportion to the rush. Police also admitted that the number of people climbing the Pathinettam Padi (holy 18 steps) has come down from 75 per minute to 60-65 per minute. They cite the increase in the number of women and children devotees for this.

This has a cascading effect with people have to stand for hours even in Pampa without being able to move forward. The police have demanded the construction of a temporary queue complex that can handle 5,000 people in Pampa to manage the crowd.

Reduce booking limit to 75,000: IG
IG G Sparjan Kumar said the virtual queue booking limit should be reduced to a maximum of 75,000 to allow pilgrims to have a smooth darshan. “Things become difficult when 90,000 pilgrims come through the virtual queue. Not all of them get darshan on the same day,” he said.

Ayyappa devotees at Sabarimala temple, in Pathanamthitta, Monday, Dec. 11, 2023. Photo: PTI

“Around 40 per cent of the pilgrims remained in the queue without getting a darshan. The rush became uncontrollable, with more people arriving as per bookings for the second day. That is why pilgrims had to be stopped at various places," he said.

Meanwhile, the State government has come under heavy criticism for deploying more police personnel to man the Nava Kerala Sadas. According to reports, only 615 police personnel were deployed to control the rush at Sabarimala at a point of time as opposed to 2,200 for the government's outreach programme.

Only 1,850 police personnel have been deployed at Sabarimala to control approximately 80,000 pilgrims who arrive for darshan daily. Among them, only 615 personnel will be on duty in a single shift extending for eight hours. Many allege that this figure is grossly inadequate when compared to the number of police personnel deployed at Nava Kerala venues to ensure security. As many as 2,250 police personnel were deployed in Idukki the other day to ensure foolproof security to the Nava Kerala sadas at Idukki, while there were 2,200 cops deployed for the programme at Ernakulam.

Last year, police personnel from Kerala Armed Police (KAP) camps were deployed at Sabarimala in tune with the increase in pilgrim flow. However, the same was not done so far this time.

A Division Bench comprising Justice Anil K Narendran and Justice P G Ajith Kumar asked whether a team of lawyers would have to be appointed to monitor the situation and submit a report. However, the government explained that action would be taken on the complaints and there was no need to deploy a team of lawyers now.

Representational Image: Manorama/ File

Reasons for poor crowd management... 
At Sannidanam

  • Lack of experienced police officers who had earlier served in Sabarimala
  • New batch of police team took charge when influx of pilgrims was the heaviest. They didn’t get enough time to study crowd control measures needed at specific points, in and around the temple premises
  • Failure of cops to determine days of heavy rush through the virtual queue system and plan measures accordingly
  • Slow pace of movement of pilgrims ascending the holy-18 steps per minute

At queue points

  • The heavy rush of pilgrims being experienced at Sabari Peedam at most times with queues extending as far as upper Appachimedu. Pilgrims often remain stranded in the serpentine queues for hours altogether in inhumane conditions.
  • When pilgrims get tired of standing in for over four to five hours, some attempt to break the queue and take forest routes to reach Swami Ayyappan road and proceed to the Lord Ayyappa temple. This further congests the areas and the crowd control measures go haywire.
  • Heavy congestion at places where barricades have been erected, leading to dangerous scenarios, as pilgrims attempt to rush to Chandranandan Road from Marakootam.
  • There are six queue complexes between Marakootam and Saramkutti. Often, they are jam-packed with more pilgrims than they could admit. To make matters worse, the toilets are dirty most of the times.
  • Pilgrims are forced to wait at least four hours before they can reach the pathinettaam padi.
File photo: Krishna Kumar KE

At Pampa

  • The police block pilgrims at Pampa Manappuram itself to control the crowd at Sannidhanam.
  • Pilgrims are forced to stand under the scorching sun for hours.
  • There are no arrangements to provide drinking water to the pilgrims standing in the queue.

At Nilackkal

  • No coordination between the police and the Kerala State Road Transportation officials.
  • Lack of sufficient buses at times of heavy rush.
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