''Unrestricted entry of vehicles contributed to stampede''

Thiruvananthapuram, Jan 18 (PTI) The Kerala ForestDepartment is of the view that unrestricted entry of vehiclesfor ferrying pilgrims into the Pullumedu trekking path wasone of the factors that paved the way for the January 14stampede that claimed the lives of 102 Sabarimala pilgrims.

The report drawn up by the Forest Department on thetragedy cited that its earlier warnings to regulate vehicleslike jeeps and autorickshaws had been largely ignored by theTravancore Devaswom Board and other agencies, Departmentsources said.

The TDB manages the hill shrine.

Flow of pilgrims through Uppupara on the Pullumedu routeduring the peak pilgrimage season from mid November to January14 has been a comparatively recent phenomenon.

Earlier, pilgrims coming through that area used toproceed from Vallakkaddavu through small estate roads toSathram, about 10 km from Vandiperiyar, and then to the shrinethrough the Poonkavanam forests, sources said.

The Uppupara route was closed in 2001 on the ground thatthe large flow of people and vehicles could cause disturbanceto wildlife including the endangered Nilgiris Thar.

It was then suggested that Sathram area should bedeveloped as an alternative base camp for the pilgrims, wherethe TDB has around 20 acres at its disposal.

However, this suggestion had been ignored and the routetemporarily opened during the season under pressure fromDevaswom Board, local politicians and vehicle operators,sources said.

By modest estimates, as many as 7,000 vehicles passthrough the area during the peak pilgrimage season every year.

Despite pressures and constraints, the Forest Department hadbeen implementing a Pilgrim Management Plan for the last 10years, sources said.

The department also rubbished claims that a chain putacross the path was one of the reasons for the mishap.

The sources said barricades to check the incursion ofvehicles into forests had been put up in such a manner thatthey would not cause any obstruction to the trekking pilgrims.

Meanwhile, the Field Director of Periyar Tiger Reserve,under which the shrine and the adjoining areas come, had alsodrawn up a report to be submitted to the National TigerConservation Authority (NTCA).

"Based on the information collected from the field, wehave prepared a primary report on the stampede citing similarreasons as factors contributing to the tragedy," a seniorPTR official said. (more) PTI LGK NM JRK BN

The preliminary finding was that the tragedy had been triggered by a "minor collision" involving a jeep and anautorickshaw, which put pressure on the heavy stream ofpilgrims heading home from the shrine, the official said.

Around 1.5 lakh pilgrims had been passing through theroute on the evening of the mishap, which happened in thebuffer zone of PTR.

The Kerala High Court had yesterday asked the Police,Forest Department and Travancore Devaswom Board to submitreports on the tragedy.

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