Even in stampedes, those are our poor who lose their lives

Sabarimala is considered one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations, so much so that it finds its place in the global list of top pilgrimage sites, sharing space with the Vatican and the Kumbh. Even Forbes Traveler features this destination among its list of the “World’s 10 most popular religious pilgrim centres”. Paradoxically, this pilgrimage destination that attracts around 60 million tourists (both domestic and foreign) annually, has failed to make the site safer for its pilgrims.

The recent stampede incident that occurred on January 14, 2011 taking the lives of more than 100 people and injuring several more is not the first one. A similar incident occurred back in 1999, killing more than 50 people. In fact, both the unfortunate incidents occurred precisely on the same very date – January 14. For that matter, January 14 is considered the most auspicious day for visiting this destination; and obviously, that day witnesses the maximum number of footfalls of tourists. A conservative estimate shows that around 10 million people visit this site on this day, thus escalating the probability of such incidents.

However, such a ‘probability’ can be completely avoided, considering that it is a well known fact! But then, I fail to understand how organizers could not keep the security and the system foolproof, especially on this particular day! What is more shocking is that in spite of a similar such incident taking the lives of many a decade back, no proper mechanism for safety protocols was established. Even after the past incident of a similar nature, no provisions of proper lighting, regulated traffic management or any form of security systems were put in place! The need for such protocols is an imperative in such sites, especially because the site is steep, quite grassy and sees the maximum movement just before dawn (to watch the Makara Jyothi). Given the timing of the visits and the topography of the site, there is also a crying requirement to study the tourist-carrying-capacity of this site.

Stampedes, for that matter, are neither a recent phenomenon nor only confined to this one site, but are frequent in almost all major pilgrimage destinations of India – ranging from Vaishno Devi to Maha Kumbh – both being the biggest and largest religious tourist hubs of the nation. Back in 2003, hundreds were killed and injured at the Kumbh Mela bathing festival in Maharashtra. Similarly, in 2005, the death toll crossed a few hundreds in Mandhra Devi temple in Maharashtra; in 2008, people died at the Naina Devi temple in Himachal Pradesh, and at Mahadeva temple and Chamunda Devi temple in Rajasthan. Almost all major tourist destinations (especially pilgrimage sites) have experienced one or the other incident of stampede. Contrast this with the world’s biggest religious tourist hubs viz. the Mecca or the Vatican – such incidents of stampede are very rare in these hubs, and creditably because of proper and scientific implementation of security measures and traffic management protocols.

When it comes to revenues, Sabarimala alone in a period of just one month is able to generate anything between Rs. 60-75 crore; and on an average, its revenues easily cross the figure of Rs. 100 crore annually! For the year 2009, the state of Andhra Pradesh, which houses Tirupathi, alone generated revenue worth Rs. 400 crore! Amidst all these numbers and series of repeated incidents, what gets marginalized is the fact that the major pie of this money comes as a part of petty donations made by the poor and underprivileged. And a major pie of deaths in these stampedes is of these common men only. Simply because when it comes to VIPs and celebs, the whole procedure of security and safety is “re-customized” for their convenience, ensuring that they reach the site safely and faster. Even if an iota of such a system and facility is provided for all those thousands of poor devotees (who virtually ensure that pilgrimage sites sustain on their donations and are able to keep up to their reputations), the death toll would instantly see a southward trend.

In fact, it is not just the organisers who should be held responsible for such mass tragedies, even the state government is equally responsible for such incidents. To top it, even the mainstream media has been unusually silent over this particular incident. The bigger tragedy is that all such irresponsibility and lack of reporting stems from the fact that the people who met their untimely death are from the bottom strata of society! Neither are they significant for any political party, nor do they bring in large individual donations to religious institutions or make any news. So what follows post such tragedies is some meagre compensation, which hardly reaches the kin of the dead; and the news becomes stale! The irony is that the same media, especially the electronic media, goes for full coverage when celebrities visit such places. They shamelessly go to the extent of even covering the colour of the clothes these celebrities wear on such visits – now compare this to the abysmal coverage provided to stampede incidents that remain in headlines merely, if at all, for a few days, consuming only a few hours of electronic media!

To be factual, I did come across a few editorials post the recent incident where the writers’ stances were more towards pointing out the irresponsible behaviour of people. There is a lot of merit in one of their arguments, when they say that people in general become unruly whenever there is a crisis like this. But then, this is a fact which is not unknown to us. Then again, that does not mean that we can let people die. As I mentioned earlier, there are other global religious destinations which attract a similar number of pilgrims, but their traffic management and security systems are so formidable that there is no chance of any such tragedies there. There is only one reason as to why such tragedies do not happen there. And that is that their religious committees and governments do not suffer from social prejudices and have been successful in universalizing basic facilities for one and all! The day we achieve the same – even our tragedies would stop!

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