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INDIA: Hindus Flock to Temples of Death

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India, Feb 28 2011 (IPS) - Disasters caused by overcrowded pilgrim centres are as old as the religious festivals themselves, but a dramatic increase in stampedes in recent years has caused national concern.

A woman grieves outside the Sabarimala temple.  Credit: K.S.Harikrishnan

A woman grieves outside the Sabarimala temple. Credit: K.S.Harikrishnan

The latest tragedy occurred at the popular hill shrine of Sabarimala in Kerala, where 104 pilgrims died in a stampede on Jan. 14. From 2005 to 2010, more than 850 devotees have been killed in temple disasters in various parts of the country.

Various government agencies and enquiry commissions, which probed disasters in pilgrim centres, have found that lack of disaster management plans and administrative apathy were the reasons behind recurring man- made disasters in places of worship.

Five factors, knowingly or unknowingly ignored by state governments, emerged as root causes of disasters at religious places.

Prime are the absence of preventive measures and prepared guidelines to avoid disaster; the failure of religious institutions to come up with strategies to combat tragedies; and the lack of community participation and public awareness that lead to disaster.

Other factors include the non-implementation of recommendations made by enquiry committees which probed earlier temple stampedes, and the inability of state-level disaster management authorities to deal with huge congregations.

Alarmed by the recurring stampedes in temples, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the apex body for disaster management in India, is now considering spearheading an integrated approach to disaster management in pilgrim centres.

NDMA vice-chairman Shashidhar Reddy told media recently that states would be urged to adopt standard disaster management procedures at all pilgrim sites.

“Crowd management at religious places has to be made part of disaster management plans. Thirupathy temple in Andhra Pradesh has a contingency plan and crowds are well regulated with a long and winding queue to prevent the possibility of a big surge,” Reddy said.

An IPS enquiry into the reports of Sabarimala stampede in 1999 revealed that a dozen reports of committees, panels and commissions, which had investigated the problems of pilgrims and constraints of development at Sabarimala temple, had gone into oblivion, and no serious remedies had been taken. The recent Sabrimala stampede sparked criticism of the Kerala government in south India for its alleged failure to protect pilgrims. Kummanam Rajashekaran, leader of the Hindu group Visha Hindu Parishad, has pointed out that all committees have suggested that the master plans should be long-term, taking into account the requirements at least for the next 25 years. “But all plans have been put into cold storage and the Travancore Devasom Board, which manages the shrine, is interested in putting up concrete structures in and around the temple, which neither serve the devotees nor are environmentally feasible,” he told IPS.

The Justice T. Chandrashekhra Menon commission, which probed the death of 53 pilgrims in a similar stampede at Sabarimala in 1999, had suggested developing alternative routes to the hill shrine to check the growing flow of devotees, but its recommendations were never implemented.

Twelve years ago, the State Legislative Committee on Environment had prepared a master plan emphasizing the need to develop transportation facilities, which also is gathering dust.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament headed by Buta Singh had visited Sabarimala in 2004 and made suggestions to improve facilities. Following the PAC visit, meetings with officials of the central and state governments were held, and an expert committee set up.

“But no one knows what happened thereafter. The visit generated some momentum which was not sustained,” P. D. T. Achary, former secretary general of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian Parliament, told media.

Sabarimala has become so popular a pilgrimage centre that it has landed in the global list of top pilgrimage sites, sharing space with the Vatican and the Mecca. ForbesTraveler features the hilltop shrine among its list of the World’s ten most visited religious destinations.

Reacting to the Sabarimala disaster, Arun Bhagat, former director of the Indian Intelligence Bureau, wrote that “the basic tenets of crowd control appear to have been ignored. It is doubtful whether even an outline of a plan had been prepared.”

In the western Indian state Maharashtra, the state government started working last year on a plan to minimize the risk of disasters in temples with poor basic facilities. This came about after a major stampede at the Mandhara Devi Templeat in Satara district of Maharashtra in 2005 left 291 pilgrims dead. Government officials admitted they did not know how many temples there were in the state and how many of them had measures to avert disasters.

“Around 53,000 temple trusts are registered with the religious department and the district administration. Every temple will get its own disaster management plan,” an official in the law department told IPS.

According to pilgrims who had gathered at Chamunda Devi Temple at Jodhpur in Rajasthan, the failure of temple authorities to make adequate arrangements and regulate the flow of devotees had led to the stampede that killed more than 250 people in 2008.

“Severe overcrowding of the areas close to the temple coupled with wild rumours caused panic among pilgrims and triggered a crush. Even though the management of the temple had prior knowledge about the festival, they did not do anything to stop the heavy rush,” said Gopal Sharma, a pilgrim from Udaipur.

At the Naini Devi Temple in Himachal Pradesh, the death of 150 pilgrims 2008 was found to be the direct result of negligence of the district administration.

“Lack of coordination between different agencies, a near absence of top district officials from the scene, unregulated traffic and ill-equipped police personnel made things worse,” says Ram Thakur, a human rights activist.

Disaster Management Authorities warned that the absence of proper and scientific implementation of security measures would lead to tragedies.

The New Delhi-based SARC Disaster Management Authority points out in its South Asia Disaster Report that better co-ordination efforts are needed reduce disaster risks.”Government agencies, policy makers and various other agencies have a greater role in disaster control and mitigation,” the report said.

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