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A three-member panel appointed by the High Court visited the temple and examined facilities, and questioned the police on the restrictions imposed there which have led to a decrease in footfall and revenue

By NV Ravindranathan Nair in Sabarimala

As the Kerala High Court has appointed a three-member panel to oversee the smooth conduct of the Sabarimala pilgrimage, and given it full powers to fulfill its mandate, the Kerala government has moved the Supreme Court against the decision. Earlier, the state government had approached the top court to transfer all Sabarimala cases from the High Court to the apex court.

The government is apparently perturbed by the High Court’s intervention in every issue and its harsh remarks against the handling of the situation. This is especially because the High Court permitted some petitions seeking easing of restrictions imposed on devotees.

A division bench of the High Court comprising Justices PR Ramachandra Menon and N Anil Kumar appointed a three-member team of observers—retired High Court judges S Sirijagan and PR Raman, and DGP A Hemachandran —for supervising the Sabarimala pilgrimage. They have been given powers to take on-the-spot decisions and give instructions to all concerned to ensure that the pilgrimage runs smoothly. They have been told to ensure that there occurs “no excess” from any authority (whether on the part of the police/ Devaswom Board/forest officials/PWD/ Kerala Water Authority) or from the pilgrims and other stakeholders.

The panel examined the facilities at the two base camps in Nilakkal and Pamba, and the sannidhanam (sanctum sanctorum) on December 4. After their visit, the members said the facilities were satisfactory, and not many people had raised complaints. They also said they will not intervene in the imposition of Section 144 (CrPC) as the matter was sub judice. Justice Raman said the low turnout of devotees may be due to the high restrictions imposed there. He said any recommendation to lift the ban could be made only upon assessment of the situation by DGP Hemachandran.

In view of the panel members’ visit, a majority of the police force in Sabarimala has been withdrawn and asked to rest in their barracks, according to some police officials. In a closed-door meeting that lasted three hours, after the panel members had examined the sanctum sanctorum they asked about the welfare of devotees. Various department officials told the panel that the police needs to relax many restrictions imposed there. The panel sought justifications from the police on the restrictions and asked why barricades had been placed at various points. The police said the restrictions would be relaxed once the situation improved. They told the panel that many protesters were camping there in the guise of devotees. Sources said that the panel asked the police to examine the scope of lifting the restrictions, adding that they could be tightened or relaxed based on the situation each day.

The panel directed the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) and the Kerala State Electricity Board to improve the conditions of shelters set up for policemen. They said the bunkers had been built using metal sheets which absorb heat during the day and cause health issues. The panel also directed department officials to resolve the obstacles in the construction of a separate path for tractors transporting goods to and from the temple. Based on its observations during the two-day visit, the panel will submit a report to the High Court.

Earlier, in the face of stiff protests from pilgrims and Sangh Parivar-backed outfits, the government had imposed ban orders in Sabarimala and four base camps—Nilakkal, Ilavunkal, Pamba and Erumeli. As the protest gathered momentum, it lifted ban orders in Erumeli. However, it has adopted a strategy of extending the ban orders by four days each, with the district administration claiming that enforcing the CrPC will be necessary to maintain law and order, in case young women come to the temple in view of the SC decision allowing entry of women of all age groups.

In view of the huge protests witnessed at Sabarimala when the shrine was opened for monthly puja in October and for Chithira atta vishesham (an auspicious day), the government wanted to keep the temple under its control and teach the Sangh Parivar and the BJP a lesson. To defeat the designs of the Sabarimala Karma Samithi protesting the entry of young women, the government deployed over 5,200 police personnel and clamped ban orders under Section 144 of the CrPC.

But the very nature of the Sabarimala pilgrimage involves pilgrims chan­t­ing the sarana mantra (a holy chant) and trekking up the hill in groups. Initially, the police tried to implement the ban orders strictly, leading to a tense atmosphere brewing not only in Sabari­mala but acr­oss the state. The police action was seen as curtailing the freedom of worship, and had a telling effect as there was a sharp decline in pilgrim footfall.

Compared to the daily turnout of 2.5 lakh to 3 lakh pilgrims in previous years, it has shrunk to just over 30,000 now. In the last 19 days since the temple opened, there was a footfall of 60,000 on only two or three days. Along with the drop in pilgrims, the hundi collection and sales of appams and arvana prasadams (temple food offerings) have also drop­ped. “The false propaganda about restr­ictions is frightening the pilgrims and they have decided not to come. But for real pilgr­ims, there’s no hardship,” said TDB president A Padamkumar to India Legal.

As the TDB is anxious over the fall in income, it is trying to issue advertisements outside Kerala to woo pilgrims. At one stage, it had planned to engage film stars and celebrities to help out. The income from Sabarimala is crucial for the TDB as it dep­ends on this to run the over-1,200 temples under its control. Though the TDB is ready to talk to the Sabarimala Karma Samithi to restore normalcy, the chief minister is preventing it from doing so.

A large number of traders used to lease the land auctioned during the pilgrim season to set up makeshift shops, restaurants and accommodation facilities for the pilgrims. This year, many traders did not turn up for the auction, fearing heavy losses.

The situation is not limited to the main temple alone. In the base camps of Erumeli, Pamba and other transit points like Kottayam, Chengannur, Kottrarakkara, Aryankavu and Pandalam, too, there is a decline in commercial activity because of the decrease in pilgrim count. This, naturally, will also affect the state’s economy. The annual pilgrimage has been a major economic activity for the state and generates employment for thousands of people.

Though the High Court has appointed a panel to oversee the pilgrimage, the Kerala government is adamant about imposing restrictions and continuing with the ban orders. It wants the cases to be transferred to the apex court to dissuade more complainants from moving the High Court. It has alleged that members of “right-wing outfits” are obstructing the implementation of the apex court verdict on the temple.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the petitions seeking a review of its September 28 judgment on January 22, in open court. The state government says it is “constitutionally bound” to ensure that the law laid down by the SC is implemented. It has clai­med that the petitions in the High Court have been filed to prevent it from implementing the judgment. “At least five women, of which two are working in the media including New York Times, were physically obstructed and threatened with physical danger when they tried to go to Sabarimala from Pampa,” the Kerala government told the Court. Earlier, after much reluctance, the TDB had moved the top court seeking more time to implement the verdict, citing security issues and inadequate amenities. For the time being, the brewing discontent has subsided, but at great economic cost.

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