Forest Dept blames entry of vehicles the cause for stampede

Forest Department held that total neglect of its warnings against uncurbed entry of vehicles into the narrow hill route was a vital factor for the tragedy at Pullumedu that killed 102 Ayyappa pilgrims.

Last Updated: Jan 18, 2011, 21:14 PM IST

Thiruvananthapuram: A day after the Kerala High Court pulled up the state Government for the Sabarimala steampede, the Forest Department today held that total neglect of its warnings against uncurbed entry of vehicles into the narrow hill route was a vital factor for the tragedy at Pullumedu that killed 102 Ayyappa pilgrims on Friday.

The Forest Department report cited that its repeated warnings to authorities concerned to strictly regulate vehicles like jeeps and autorickshawas had been largely ignored by the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) and other agencies involved in the conduct of the pilgrimage, which draws millions during its high points, Department sources said.

The authorities of the Periyar Tiger Rserve (PTR) also cited similar lapses as the main factor contributing to the disaster and recommended firm steps to check incursion of vehicles into the route which forms part of ecologically sensitive wildlife habitat.
Field Director of PTR R R Shukla today forwarded a report to the National Tiger Conservation Authority as sought by the agency shortly after the disaster.

The Forest Department claimed that it had been under pressure from state agencies, the temple board and lobby of vehicle operators and local politicians to allow traffic into the sensitive hill route, which was closed a few years back.

It said huge flow of pilgrims through Uppupara on the Pullumedu route during the peak pilgrimage season (mid November to January 14) had been a recent phenomemon.

Earlier, pilgrims coming through that area used to proceed from Vallakkaddavu through small estate roads to Sathram, about 10 km frp, Vandiperiyar, and, then to the shrine through the Poonkavanam forests,sources said.
The suggestion for developing a transit campt at Sathram area for the pilgrims had been ingnored by TDB, which has around 20 acres of land at its dispolsal there, sources said.

By modest estimates as many as 7000 vehicles pass through the area during the peak pilgrimage season every year.

The department rubbished the theory doing the round that a chain put across the path was one of the reasons for the mishap. Whatever hurdles to check the incursion of vehicles into forests had been put up in such a manner that they would not cause any obstruction to the trekking pilgrims, it said.

State DGP Jacob Punnose said the police report on the tragedy would be submitted to the Kerala High Court on January 20.

The Trvancore Devaswom Board set up a four-member panel headed by Superintendent of its vigilance wing to prepare a report on the tragedy.

A division bench of the Kerala High Court had yesterday pulled up the government for the tragedy and asked the Police, Forest and TDB to furnish reports on the the worst pilgrim tragedy in the history of the hillshrine.

Meanwhile, the pilgrimage season will be concluded tomorrow with winding up ceremonies and rituals at the shrine.

PTI