Pilgrimage or carnage

Two crore pilgrims visit the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala annually, and the environment pays dearly for it

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

come November and the surroundings of Sabarimala, the hill shrine situated in the southern part of the Periyar tiger reserve in Kerala, take a beating. The annual influx of over two crore pilgrims during the makaravilakku season (November to January) inflicts heavy biotic pressure and widespread environmental damage.

According to forest department officials, roughly 6,000 ha are under threat because of the devotees. Problems include illicit collection of firewood, faecal pollution of streams and rivers, dumping of plastics and other wastes, stymieing of natural regeneration of the forests and the impact of all this on the fauna of the tiger reserve and neighbouring areas.

The surrounding forests are home to the endangered tiger, giant Malabar squirrel, great Indian hornbill and the Nilgiri langur, apart from housing a number of exotic and rare plants. However, destruction of the Sabarimala forests could wreak havoc in the entire central Travancore plains and even in faraway Kuttanad, by causing floods during the monsoon and droughts during summer, due to low retention capacity of the catchment area.

The non-biodegradable plastic litter poses a threat to the fauna of the region, apart from choking water bodies. Lethal plastics has been detected in elephant faeces. Donkeys are widely used to transport goods at Sabarimala and their carcasses are part of the post-pilgrimage scenario. The Pampa river -- in which devotees take mandatory dips before trekking uphill to the shrine -- becomes polluted enough to deprive villages 40 km downstream of water for washing and bathing, leave alone drinking.

And now, there is a new threat on the horizon. The Devaswom board (temple management) is planning a mega project called Rudravanam on 100 ha of forest land. Rs 300 crore have been earmarked for the construction of 45 multi-storeyed buildings and the setting up of a township with a shopping complex and parking facilities. The township will be linked to the base camp at Pampa, by a new 15 m-wide highway for which 15 more hectares of land shall be cleared.

The already fragile ecosystem of the Sabarimala region will collapse, quite literally, if this project comes through. A study conducted by the Thiruvananthapuram-based non-governmental organisation, Centre for Environment and Development points out that the area surrounding the temple has become landslide-prone, thanks to indiscriminate construction under the pretext of providing pilgrims more facilities. The geological structure of the region is already weak due to intersecting lineaments, steep slopes and thin soil. Nearly 400,000 ha of the Western ghats have been thrown in jeopardy because the Periyar tiger reserve, and the Meghamalai hills and Srivilliputhur sanctuary in Tamil Nadu, comprise a contiguous forest system. The removal of these wildlife corridors would endanger the fauna even more.

According to M K Prasad of the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad, such facilities are not required. "No Ayyappa (the presiding deity at the shrine) devotee would demand first class facilities because the pilgrimage traditionally demands austerity." In fact, the project's critics do have an alternative for the authorities. They propose the development of satellite centres like Aranmulla and Pandalam, whereby pilgrims could return to their shelters within five-six hours of visiting the shrine.

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