Sabarimala stampede - tragedy reduced to a probe?
Thiruvananthapuram: As police investigate the stampede near the Sabarimala Temple that claimed 102 lives, the question in many minds is whether it will throw up answers and fix responsibility or be reduced to another probe pending action for years like the earlier boat tragedies in Kumarakom and Thekkady.
While this is one of the worst tragedies Kerala has seen, the state had earlier witnessed boat accidents at tourist destinations like Kumarakom in 2002, Thattekad in 2007, Thekkady Wildlife Reserve in 2009 and Malappuram, again in 2009, where many people lost their lives.
And no concrete action has been taken in any of these cases.
As far as Friday's Sabarimala accident is concerned, the authorities need not look elsewhere as there are two reports - in 1992 and 2007 - prepared for improving facilities at the pilgrim spot.
The 2007 report was submitted by Justice (retd) KS Paripoornan but not even one of the 70 recommendations has been implemented. The report is just lying in cold storage.
The Crime Branch reached the accident spot near Sabarimala on Sunday morning, beginning investigations into the cause of Friday night's stampede at Pulumedu near Vandiperiyar town where about 100,000 pilgrims had gathered to watch the Makara Jyoti light on the Sabarimala hills.
Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan had earlier sought a judicial probe into the accident which took place some 30 km from the Sabarimala Temple in Pathanamthitta district, dedicated to Lord Ayyappa.
In September 2008, 45 tourists were killed when their boat sank in a lake at the Thekkady Wildlife Reserve.
A judicial probe into the accident had just one sitting in December last year, 15 months after the tragedy. Six people, including the boat driver, the surveyor and other officials, were arrested but were granted bail later. The commission is yet to submit its report.
Within 35 days of Thekkady, eight students died in Malappuram district when their boat capsized in a river while they were returning from school. This too has seen no action taken.
Then there are previous tragedies where the judicial enquiry is over but the reports are just lying with the State Secretariat.
These are the judicial inquiries into the Kumarakom boat tragedy in 2002 in Kottayam district that killed 27 people that was headed by Justice (retd) K Narayana Kurup and the Thattekad boat tragedy that claimed 17 lives in Ernakulam district in 2007. The latter was headed by Justice (retd) Pareed Pillai.
Veteran Congress leader VM Sudheeeran said that there appeared to be a system breakdown when it comes to holding probes and taking follow-up action. He stressed on the importance of time-bound investigations.
"The need of the hour is strong political will; besides, it is time that suitable legislations are passed to see that whenever probes of this nature take place, it should happen in a time-bound manner and let the people know what action has been taken. It is imperative that responsibility is fixed on those who have erred," Sudheeran said.
State Minister for Devasoms Kadanapally Ramachandran, who looks after temples in the state's southern districts including Sabarimala, assured of speedy action in Friday's stampede once the report is in.
"From my part I will take up this issue and see that once the probe report is received, speedy action should be taken on implementing it once it is accepted by the government. This issue will be taken up at the Cabinet level meetings," Ramachandran said.
But Ramachandran's assurances apart, the Sabarimala tragedy once again triggered a blame game at the political level over security lapses and who should own responsibility.
The Congress Opposition led by Oommen Chandy blamed the government for its inefficiency in not having a proper crowd control plan in place.
"There has been a serious security lapse and the site at which the tragedy struck near Sabarimala (30 km from the temple) at Pulumedu has seen the crowd swell in the past few years. How could a few policemen handle a crowd of over 100,000 devotees? This tragedy was an invited one," Chandy said.
Chief Minister Achuthanandan retorted: "How could we foresee that this would happen? Once we came to know about the tragedy, the forces were rushed to the site."
Police on their part quashed reports of inadequate security, insisting that as many as 279 police officials were deployed in and around the Pulumedu area.