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Monday 31 January 2005

Government wants forest land for Sabarimala pilgrims

sridevi pillai Kochi



as the Sabarimala pilgrim season began recently, reports poured in about the huge pilgrim rush and the improved facilities for them. The environmental implications of these have largely been ignored. The fact is, the entire Pampa river basin is polluted due to lack of sanitation and waste management facilities. The State Pollution Control Board says the coliform count in the Pampa River is 94,000 per 100 millilitre (ml) of water, against the permissible 500 per 100 ml. What's worse, the government's eco-unfriendly moves to set the situation right will further accentuate the crisis.

The Sabarimala temple, in Kerala's Pathanamthitta district, is inside the famous Periyar Tiger Reserve. It is managed by the Travancore Devaswom Board (tdb) , under the state government. The land belongs to the state Forest and Wildlife Department and the Union ministry of environment and forests (m o ef) . Around 0.35 million pilgrims visited the shrine last year, and an estimate says the number increases by a whopping 12-15 per cent every year. Sanitation is such a big problem that even a 24-hour service of 450 volunteers can't keep the base camp at Pampa clean. Road congestion and parking problems are also common.

Devaswom minister K C Venugopal says the state cabinet has requested the m o ef to release 20.23 hectares of forest land to provide parking facilities at Pampa. "The government is very keen on reducing the difficulties of the pilgrims but the forest laws prevent us," he adds. Member of parliament Francis George shares his zeal: "I have requested for immediate release of forest land for developmental activities." But environmentalists oppose this plan. They believe pilgrims should not stay inside the tiger reserve. "Pilgrims should have facilities in nearby towns, not inside the reserve. We need an eco-friendly master plan for Sabarimala," says Sugathakumari, a local environmentalist. Absence of any disaster management plan for Sabarimala is another problem that needs to be addressed.

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