Cause of disaster uncertain

via VR Jayaraj | Idukki - Daily Pioneer published on January 15, 2011

Confusion prevailed even late Saturday evening over the cause of the gruesome disaster that occurred at Pullumedu near Vandipperiyar within the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala’s Idukki district on Friday in which 102 Sabarimala pilgrims were confirmed to have been killed and over 50 suffered injuries, some of them seriously.

Reports said that 37 pilgrims were missing, adding to the worries that more people could have been killed in the stampede even as ten of the seriously injured were shifted to medical college hospitals in Kottayam in Kerala and Theni in Tamil Nadu. As many as 90 dead pilgrims were identified by Saturday evening and all of them, except six, were from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

Kerala Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan, who flew in to Kumili in Idukki district where the bodies of the dead were kept, said a judicial probe would be launched to find out the cause of the disaster. He also said the State would observe three-day mourning in the context of the disaster, the worst to happen at Sabarimala.

All the victims were pilgrims returning from the famed Lord Ayyappa shrine after the Makara Samkrama Pooja, the ultimate event of the annual two-month pilgrimage. It is said that about 150,000 pilgrims from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh were camping at Pullumedu to sight Makara Jyoti, the holy flame that would flicker in the horizon on the particular day.

Post-mortem reports indicated that most of the deaths were due to stampede. They said the causes of most of the deaths were excessive internal bleeding and damage to internal organs. The Government hospital at Kumily saw the quickest post-mortem procedures ever in the State with the involvement of 60 doctors.

Friday’s stampede at Pullumedu was the worst disaster to happen in Sabarimala, where 118 pilgrims had died in two earlier tragedies. “Ever since the last accident on January 14, 1999, a disaster was waiting to happen at Sabarimala. But this could have been avoided if the authorities had shown a bit of concern,” said Raman Nair, a pilgrim.

A delegation from Karnataka, led by its Power Minister Shobha Karandlaje and Agriculture Minister Umesh Katti said at Kumili that the disaster would not have occurred if the Kerala Government had taken adequate precautionary measures. The Congress-led Opposition UDF in Kerala also raised this allegation.

While contradicting reports came out regarding the exact cause of the stampede, even top police officials admitted that the disaster could have been avoided if there were adequate security measures and other basic facilities like electricity, communications and transportation. The forest path through Pullumedu does not have any basic amenities despite the fact that it is being used by lakhs of pilgrims every year.

Rejecting the theory that a chain installed across the forest path to prevent vehicular intrusion into the Tiger Reserve was the reason for the accident, the Kerala Department of Forests said that the stampede started after quarrels among autorikshaw and jeep operators which led to a minor accident. The report compiled by the Idukki District Collector agreed with this version.

Operators of temporary shops at Pullumedu disagreed with this. “At the moment, I don’t think anybody can say for sure as to what happened because the place did not have sufficient light. I had taken part in the rescue operation and all I had seen was pilgrims falling upon others and still others trying to escape the disaster trampling on the fallen pilgrims,” said a shopkeeper.

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