published on January 4, 2011

Sabarimala pilgrims sleep like ‘beasts’ on the way side; Face inadequate facilities; Constantly fleeced by many shops, hotels, buses, airlines; Hindu Temples must be freed from government control

Sabarimala Pilgrim facilities

“the amenities for pilgrims at Sabarimala are pathetic, that pilgrims sometimes slept on the wayside like beasts and drank the highly contaminated water from the Pampa. “ Buta Singh, the chairman of the Parliamentary Accounts Committee, January 1, 2004.

Haj Pilgrim Facilities

“The pilgrims are provided air tickets and boarding cards besides Custom clearance, security check, Medical check-up, cargo handling and currency exchange are done at the Haj House,” Mr. A G Shahbaz, October 20, 2009.

These two pilgrimages provide a striking comparison with regard to the number of people attending, the amount of money government spends, the quality of amenities provided to these pilgrims, the money generated by these pilgrims to the country of their origin, the amount of money they spend to promote the Indian economy, and the government€™s discriminatory policy toward these pilgrims.  

            On December 27, 2010 Sabarimala Mandala Puja was completed. It was started on November 16. The temple is reopened for Makaravilakku festival on December 30, 2010. Ayyappa devotees undertaking the Sabarimala pilgrimage increasingly come from out of state of Kerala mainly from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In fact, they come from many parts of  India. Some come from abroad, irrespective of caste, creed and religion. Trekking though the hard roads, valleys, and peaks of the Sabari Hill is difficult, intricate and complex. It takes a lot of energy, determination, faith, conviction and will power to go thorough nearly two months of pilgrimage. The passion, the ecstasy and enthusiasm of millions of devotees undertaking this sacred of people is exceptional knowing the amount of travel they have to make to visit Ayyappa Temple. Sabarimala, which is situated over 467 meters above sea level, is unique in terms of its geographical location.  

An estimated 50-55 million pilgrims attended the Mandala Puja days at Sabarimala in 2009. It is expected that as many as 60-65 million devotees attended the Mandala Puja in 2010.  The average money they spend per person to visit Sabarimala may be as much as Rs.2000 which includes the travel from their native places, food, accommodation, puja items, clothes and other personal items.

On one day alone (January 14, 2007) five million Hindu pilgrims believed to have paid homage at Sabarimala Shrine in Kerala, India.

There was an increase of 35 per cent in revenue in 2007 while comparing with last year during the November-December period. In the number of visitors, the increase is of 19 per cent. These figures show the need for immediate developmental works in Sabarimala. But there are agencies like Forest Department which cry for tigers and forests,” alleges G. Raman Nair, outgoing president of the board.

Revenue generated by Sabarimala Devotees

            For 2009-2010, according to Travancore Devaswom Board sources, the total revenue collection at Sabarimala during the Mandalam-Makaravilakku pilgrim season has touched Rs 125.94 crore as on January 17 evening. This is against the Rs 109.94 crore revenue collected during the same period in the previous pilgrim season.

Aravana (Prasadam) sales alone has fetched a total collection of Rs 42.65 crore as on Sunday while the Hundi collection during the period was Rs 49.55 crore, sources said. The total revenue collection during the Makaravilakku festival alone up to Sunday evening was Rs 41.37 crore, sources said.

            In 2010-11, the total income received at Sabarimala since the beginning of the Mandalam season has reached Rs.95 crores. Last year the collection during the same period of 39 days was Rs.80 crores.

Exploitation Rampant even after Government’s assurance

Benoy Viswam, Forest Minister  said here on November 17, 2010 that the Forest Department would not tolerate any exploitation of Sabarimala pilgrims by eco-development committees in the Periyar Tiger Reserve area.

            The Minister told the media that strict instructions had been issued against benami control and over-charging of price on items sold through their shops in the area. The shops would have to stick to the prices fixed by the district collectors and shops violating the directions would be suspended.

            Even the Kerala High Court has came down heavily on the State Government and the Travancore Devaswom Board(TDB) which controlling all the temples in the state and said that corruption was rampant in the Board and the government is a mute spectator. On June 2, 2010 the High Court observed it was a pity the State Government couldn’t constitute Devaswom Board, which was a statutory mandate. Criticizing the functioning of the TDB, a Division Bench comprising Justices C N Ramachandran Nair and P S Gopinathan held that corruption had become a common policy of the Board. The Division Bench also observed that the Board was treating temples as orphanages.

Fleecing of Sabarimala Pilgrims

            Many devotees have to pay extra money to travel on buses and trains, to use toilets, to stay in hotels.  According to V. Muralidhara, State BJP President states:  ”Ironically, both the government and the TDB have been fleecing the pilgrims by introducing ‘special’ bus fare on ‘Sabarimala special’ services, additional taxes, special electricity tariff etc. from them.

The TDB even used to collect user fee from the devotees at comfort stations, conveniently sidelining the fact that it is the duty of the temple authorities to ensure all basic facilities for pilgrims at Sabarimala,” He said it was high time this commercial attitude of the TDB and the government was brought to an end and extended a foolproof pilgrim facility at Sabarimala.
Mr. Muraleedharan also alleged that there were no security arrangements at Sabarimala when the temple is closed  in January and he demanded the government take immediate steps to ensure adequate security to the Ayyappa temple.
Fleecing of Water bottles

As per the agreement with the Travancore Devaswom Board, the bottled water contractor should sell the water at Rs 15 per litre at Sannidhanam and Rs 13 at Pampa. Instead the water bottles are sold at Rs 20 to the pilgrims at Sannidhanam and on the trekking path at Neelimala, Marakkottam and Saramkuthi.

It appears that 90 per cent of the sales are done through the shops and food vendors owned by private operators. Since there is only one contractor to supply water bottles for Pampa and Sannidhanam, they are milking the pilgrims with no guidelines. The failure to open adequate numbers of outlets by the contractor as well as not selecting more than one contractor  is allegedly a ploy to reap profit in collusion with private establishments. However, the Government authorities concerned so far failed to notice the daylight exploitation of the pilgrims. Even after receiving widespread complaints, hardly any action such as random checks was conducted by the authorities concerned.

Fleecing by Restaurants

District administration fixed the price for many of the food items purchased by the pilgrims during the Sabarimala festival. The Kerala Hotel and Restaurant Association filed a petition in High Court challenging the fixed prices. On December 18, 2010, the High Court issued an interim stay order on the prices of food items fixed by the district administration. Now, the Hotel Association is taking advantage of the High Court decision by hiking prices for many of the food items especially by the hotels located between Vadasserikara, Nilackal, and Laha.

            For a noon meal, hotels at Laha and Nilackal charge between Rs 40 and Rs 50 and for Rs 40 for three porottas and a side dish. Hardly any Government authority conducts check after the interim stay granted by the Court. The Government authorities concerned for ensuring fair prices hardly conduct any checks owing to the lack of clear instructions from the district administration after the interim stay by the Court, it is reliably learnt.

Service Charge by Railways

            The service charge imposed on Sabarimala pilgrims at the Pampa reservation counter of the Southern Railway evoked  widespread protest among the pilgrims. The service charge, Rs 10 per ticket reserved from Pampa railway counter, has come as rude shock for the pilgrims.
Functioning as a satellite centre of Chengannur railway station, the introduction of the new levy is for the first time since its inception in 2003-2004 pilgrimage season.
“The day light exploitation of the Sabarimala pilgrims by the railways should be withdrawn at the earliest,” Kuppuswamy of Chennai said.
“Instead of giving incentives to Sabarimala pilgrims on the line of Haj pilgrims by the Air India and Indian Airlines, the fleecing of pilgrims by the railway authorities should be withdrawn at the earliest,” Kuppuswamy said.
Fleecing by Airlines

In November 2010 Air India suddenly cancelled its most popular flight from Kuala Lumpur-Chennai, hundreds of Malaysian Tamils who were to take a pilgrimage to Sabarimala or visit India during December-January have faced high airline fares. The reservations they made months ago were canceled by Air India without proper explanation. As soon as Air India pulled out from the route, other airlines have jacked up their fares.

“AI’s return fare was 1000 Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) and Jet Airways used to charge 1070 MYR. But after the AI flight was withdrawn, Jet Airways hiked its fare to 1400 MYR,” a Kuala Lumpur-based travel agent told Express over phone. Other airlines like Air Asia are charging 1300 MYR and Malaysian Airlines 1500 MYR.

State Government Levies Commercial Tariff at Sabarimala

On December 17, 2010,  the Travancore Devaswom Employees Union has alleged that the State Government is commercializing the Sabarimala pilgrimage by levying commercial tariff for electricity and water used by various Government departments at Sabarimala. Addressing media persons at Sannidhanam the Employees Union general secretary B Thulasidharan Pillai said that the Government should end the unfair practice of imposing commercial rates on the Government departments that offer various services to the pilgrims

            In fact the General Secretary mentioned, since the State Government receives revenue of Rs 2,000 crore during the pilgrimage season, what is the necessity of imposing tariff on water and electricity. It has the responsibility to set up infrastructure and other basic facilities for the pilgrims free of cost, Pillai said.

What kind of Facilities Greet the Pilgrims

Over the last ten years, pilgrims experienced similar problems whenever they were planning to undertake the arduous Sabarimala pilgrimage. Pilgrims talk about the inadequate facilities at Sabarimala and express their concerns to the officials and the media. Of course Travancore  Devaswom Board members, Transportation department, concerned ministers, health officials, Pampa River officials, transportation ministers, sewer experts, government officials at the state and Centre, numerous MLAs and MPs and so on talk about the poor facilities greeting the pilgrims, and how to improve them year after year. With ever increasing number of pilgrims visiting the spiritually charges Ayyappa Temple, facilities fall behind the expectations. State government appears to have no plans to provide adequate facilities to the expected the number of pilgrims attending Sabarimala. The government and Travancore Devaswom Board are totally unprepared even to estimate the expected number of pilgrims visiting Sabarimala and match the facilities to the pilgrim€™s needs.  It is a known fact the number of pilgrims visiting Sabarimala is increasing by ten percent each year over the last decade or so. It is inexcusable that the government who takes an average 130 -140 crores of money to it’s treasury, does not provide basic amenities to these pilgrims. 

G.K. Nair of Business Line reports on November 14, 2010 as follows:

The Sabarimala pilgrimage season is less than a week away and the river Pampa continues to be polluted as it was last year, when unhealthy conditions threatened around 40 lakh inhabitants of the river basin from Pampa to Kuttanad with serious water-borne diseases. Adequate facilities have not been created in spite of the demands of lakhs of pilgrims, according to devotees.¨”Even though not well documented, from mid-November to mid-February, several water-borne diseases and multi-drug resistant diseases are on the rise in Kuttanad region, which could be attributed to the increased contamination and pollution of the river Pampa during the pilgrimage season,” Dr B. Padmakumar, Associate Professor, General Medicine, Alappuzha Government Medical College, told Business Line.

            The only solution to this serious problem is “the setting up of required infrastructure such as high-capacity sewage treatment plants at Pampa and Sannidhanam and proper drainage systems, keeping in mind the ever-increasing number of pilgrims every year to arrest the discharge of faecal and other hazardous wastes into the river,” he pointed out.
Sanitation Facilities
The Times of India e-paper reports on November 17, 2010 that while the Travancore Devaswom Board claims a total of 300 toilets in and around Pamba, where the navigable route ends, devotees point out the storage facilities are grossly inadequate.

“The septic tanks are filled up in a matter of days and the waste is then dumped into the river, posing serious health hazards to the pilgrims. The toilets are auctioned during every season and the contractor who gets it charges indiscriminately from the pilgrims. We are of the view that all basic facilities including food and toilet facilities should be provided free of cost to the pilgrims. Also the government should expedite the setting up of a sewage treatment plant, the proposal for which was mooted several years ago, said Kummanam Rajasekharan, General Secretary of the Ayyappa Seva Samajam.”
            On December 2, 2010 it is reported that the toilet block attached to the resting places at Appachimedu are yet to be opened for the pilgrims. Though signs were put up at the resting places, the toilets are kept locked. Lack of water supply connection to the resting place is attributed as the cause for the present situation.

Medical facilities

            The medical facilities at Sabarimala and Pampa are quite inadequate to meet the needs of millions of pilgrims trekking to the hill shrine. According to Dr B. Padmakumar, who is in charge of government hospital at Sannidhanam (Sabarimala) says that considering the number of devotees, the existing facilities are quite inadequate. “Trekking increases the workload of the heart, pushing up the pulse rates, and in the case of those with a history of heart problems, it would require immediate medical care.”

            The existing facilities available at Sannidhanam, Neelimala, Apachimedu and Pampa are not enough to handle such serious cases. The cardiology centre at Neelimala is functioning in a temporary shed, which does not even look like a hospital at all. Similarly, there is no medical facility on the parallel trekking path, “Swami Ayyappan Road”, which is essential as a large number of pilgrims take this route during the season.

Problems faced by Pilgrims as reported by Express News Service November 25, 2010

            Sabarimala pilgrims lashed out at the KSRTC officials at Boarkims Theyottarakara depot following their careless approach in operating the buses to Pamba on Thursday. After paying high price, they boarded Pamba bound Venad bus (RNA 186,KL 15 8367) AT 11.30 AM at the bus depot. Though they had waited till 2.30 pm. There was no conductor or driver to operate the bus. All the seats had been filled. As the children and women got restless, other pilgrims went to the station master office and expressed their protest over the delay. But the Station master and the other KSTC staff at the SMO acted in an arrogant manner which provoked the pilgrims.

As situation turning tense, a driver was rushed to the bus. Again it was a wait for the conductor to arrive. Many pilgrims have complained that in spite of charging exorbitant bus charge, no facility is provided to the pilgrims at the bus station.
            The toilets at the KSRTC depots are unclean and no action has been to make the contractors clean the “pay and use toilets” at regular interval. Many people complain that the pilgrims are being fleeced (swindled) by the hotels at Punalur and Kottarakara. With the start of the pilgrim season, most of the hotels have hiked the prices.
            The condition in the KSRTC canteen at Kottarakkara is pathetic. As it is adjacent to the stinking toilet, most of the pilgrims are reluctant even to enter it. And there has been no provision to provide even clean drinking water, the pilgrims said.
Opposition Party Walked Out.

            In 2008, the Opposition Party openly criticized the government for not implementing the plans to improve the facilities for the pilgrims. At the time, the Minister informed “We have spend nearly 90 percent of the amount for improving facilities. The major work to be taken up is a queue complex, a ropeway for carrying things to the temple top and a state-of-the-art sewage plant. We will finish this before we demit office in another 40 months. ” Even after spending 90 percent of the approved budget, facilities have not improved.

            But leader of opposition Oommen Chandy said the government had not made use of the 110 hectares of land given to the temple for developmental activities. He said that in 2005, Mr. Manmohan Singhm the Prime Minister to sanctioned 12.65 hectares of forestland in the temple complex. Furthermore another 110 hectares of land was also handed over for developmental activities.  The present government failed to take appropriate steps to implement the plans in the approved land over the last 30 months they have been in office.

Sabarimala Master Plan

            A number of Master Plans have been prepared and discussed at length by the  TDB members, State government officials, Chief Ministers, Prime Minister Devaswom Ministers, Forest Minister, Sabarimala Temple Executive Officers, Water Department Officials, Pampa River officials and a host of others over more than ten years. Every year they talk of preparing a Master Plan and implement it the next year following Sabarimala festival. These plans have become pin-pong balls to be hit back and forth to end up in dumpster. Each department blames the other for delay in developing a comprehensive plan to ease the heavy rush, to reduce the waiting time to have darshan, to manage the crowd control, to clean the polluted Pamba River and to optimize the land utilization.

            Early part December 2010, Forest Minister  Mr. Benoy Viswom charged that the officials attached to the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) and contractors are responsible for the state of affairs at the famous pilgrim centre of Sabarimala and the delay of the implementation of Master plan.

Talking to The Hindu, Mr. Viswom said it was an irony that TDB officials thought of Sabarimala and the much sought-after master plan only on the eve of the annual pilgrim season. An unholy nexus between a contractor lobby and a section of the TDB officials has been marring Sabarimala development, he alleged.

Mr. Viswom, however, said the present temple administrative body was capable of busting this nexus and implementing various development projects at Sabarimala in a time-bound manner. The High Court also observed that the dispute among different state organizations was only regarding the opportunity to involve in more corruption. Every body is only looking at milking the maximum from the Hindu cow €“ nothing more and nothing less. They only discuss and decide based on their share of pot from all these projects.

             The Sabarimala Master Plan developed around 2005 by IL&FS Ecosmart Ltd was approved by the Travancore Devaswom Board, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, Supreme Court of India and the Government of Kerala. With ever increasing number of pilgrims visiting Sabarimala,  infrastructure, facilities and other services have lagged behind to provide the basic needs of the pilgrims. The Master Plan aims to develop the Sabarimala temple complex and the surrounding region, which mostly forms part of Periyar Forest Reserve, in a complimentary and eco-friendly manner, so as to provide a satisfying pilgrimage experience to the pilgrims visiting the Holy Shrine.

            On April 10, 2010 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accused Kerala’s Left Democratic Front government for it€™s inaction. He said that if the left government had taken appropriate steps   to implement the Sabarimala Pamba Action Plan that would have benefited thousands of pilgrims.

            “Had the government here been proactive to the Sabarimala Pamba Action Plan, the pilgrimage to the Sabarimala temple for thousands of devotees would have been smooth,” Manmohan Singh said while addressing an election meeting.

The Rs.320 crore action plan under the National River Conservation Programme (NRCP) aims to check the pollution of the Pamba River. The central government has provided money to commence the first phase plan, while the state government and local bodies are to contribute 30 percent of funds.

On December 16, 2010, a Committee for the implementation of the Sabarimala Master Plan chaired by Additional Chief Secretary K. Jayakumar has decided to launch various projects envisaged in the plan in February. M. Rajendran Nair, Special Commissioner appointed by Kerala High Court,  said the committee decided to prioritize the projects in the next one month itself.
The committee resolved to implement the following:

            proposed Pampa-Sannidhanam ropeway project, a two-storey Valiyanadappandal to regulate the queue system at the Sannidhanam, development of the Swami Ayyappan Road, modern Appam-Aravana plant, sewage treatment plants, queue complex, Triveni-Pampa passage for emergency evacuation, improvement of the ring road at Nilackal base camp, and development of a water reservoir at Nilackal soon after the culmination of the ongoing pilgrim season.

This Committee met again on December 25, 2010 and announced that 12 projects, involving an expenditure of Rs 150 crore, have been shortlisted for implementation at Sannidhanam, Pampa and Nilackal immediately after the Makaravilakku season which ends on January 20, 2011.

Let us all hope that this Committee will be able to muster enough strength to implement the Sabarimala Master Plan to provide adequate facilities to the pilgrims. Let us also hope that the State government officials, different departments involved in the implementation, and Travancore Devaswom Board members will set aside their selfish interest to make money off the Master Plan, put the needs and facilities of the pilgrims as more important than their political interests, shred their ego in front of  Lord Ayyappa to receive the spiritual lesson in discharging the responsibilities, and bring respect and prestige to the most spiritually charged Temple in India.

Let us pray Lord Ayyappa to bestow enough wisdom on all these decision makers to complete the Master plan to provide proper facilities to these Pilgrims

(NOTE: We acknowledge The Hindu. Express Service, Times of India and other sources in obtaining some of the information).

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