Infrastructure woes at Himachal temple shrines, a recipe for disaster

Shimla: Magnitude of the stampede tragedy on Sunday has not deterred devotees from making their way again to the hilltop shrine of Naina Devi. In a guarded way pilgrims seeking the blessings of the Devi continue to move up the same path that claimed 146 lives a day earlier.

Twenty five years ago, two the day, a tragedy of a similar nature had resulted in the death of 53 persons. It was the second day of the Sharvan Astami Mela, just like the one on Sunday, in 1983 when a stampede resulting into a railing breaking down that had caused the deaths.

“It was a fire that started in some shop along the way that caused the tragedy then,” recalls Virbhadra Singh, who had just become chief minister of the state for the first time a few months earlier.

Virbhadra Singh told My Himachal News, “We did bring most of the important temples under a trust and at Naina Devi, the entry and departure paths along the hillside were separated.”

A quarter century later that additional infrastructure proved inadequate. “It was a failure to regulate the movement of people, especially when one was aware that there is local festival at Naina Devi at this time of the year, says Pankaj Goswami, who has just come back from a pilgrimage to Shrikhand, a high altitude shrine in Kinnaur.

Holding inadequate security responsible for the tragedy, former chief minister said, “Only 250 security personnel to regulate a crowd of thousands during auspicious days was clearly insufficient”

To fix accountability, Virbhadra Singh demanded a judicial inquiry be got conducted into the pilgrim tragedy.Managed by a trust, the Naina Devi temple shrine trust is reported to be making offering collections in crores, each year.

“Why are such funds not used to improve amenities like access, parking spaces, drinking water and wash rooms along the way,” says Goswami.

Insisting on anonymity a Bilaspur district police official said, “Laying the blame on the police is easy.”

“Not just inadequate police for regulation of peoples movement at the shrine, it’s a failure of the system. Approach paths are narrow, there are encroachments along the way, civic amenities are insufficient for the ever increasing number of pilgrims, disaster management squads are not there and mobile emergency health care services are lacking,” he said.

Ashwani Soni, a pilgrim from Jalandhar, is sore about the tax collected from vehicles which enter the state. “With my family I often head out visiting temples and duly pay the tax Himachal collects on entry.”

“Unlike Vaishno Devi where the management has improved the entire approach path, temples in Himachal that I visit have the same old problems that existed a decade earlier,” says Soni. Incidentally, pilgrims constitute the largest group categorized as tourists who visit the state annually.

Photo by Yash

As Editor, Ravinder Makhaik leads a team of media professionals at Hill Post. Spanning a career of over two decades in mass communication, as a Documentary Filmmaker, TV journalist, Print Media journalist and with Online & Social Media, he brings with him a vast experience. He lives in Shimla.

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3 Comments

  1. says: Avnish Katoch

    Now the time for government to emulate Vaishno Devi shrine board in every temple in HP.Baba Balak Nath, Jwalamukhi, Chintpurni, Chamunda ji and Brijeshwari Devi temple in Kangra all are in dire need of infrastructure overhaul.

    Money was never an issue for temples, its just that those at the helm don’t know how to fix the problems. Each and every temple should have same facilities like Vaishno Devi.

    Remember HIMACHAL, our state generates a huge tax from pilgrimage tourism.And we are one with huge Rs. 13000 crore plus debt.

    Fix it or loose this also.

    Other tourist avenues are already in shambles but at least for pilgrimage tourism improvements, money is never issue.

    Please, instead of announcements just start the work.

  2. says: avnish

    And now this. I am told government machinery has become so shameless that media exposures or accidents hardly shake them. Even same stories carried by various newspapers exposing the cruelty of the infrastructure hardly bothers them.

    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,398661,00.html
     
     
    http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/India/Man_faints_during_stampede_ends_up_in_morgue/articleshow/3331239.cms
     
    ANANDPUR SAHIB: The images often get blurred in his mind and he still wakes up from sleep seeing splattered blood. But what Mange Ram remembers quite clearly is that minutes after Sunday’s killer stampede at Naina Devi, he was crushed under the weight of falling, fleeing bodies. Disoriented with fear and straining with exhaustion, he soon lost consciousness.
     
    “When I woke up, I was in the middle of a row of bodies waiting for postmortem,” the 19-year-old said, shivering, “my throat was parched and I asked for water. Towering over me the doctors and nursing staff at Anandpur Sahib Civil Hospital looked dazed. They must have been surprised to see a dead man come alive like that. But when was I dead?”
     
    In a startling revelation that lays exposed the callousness with which the Himachal Pradesh government dealt with the Naina Devi tragedy and its 146 victims, it now seems that no officer cared to segregate the dead from the living before piling them up into waiting trucks for postmortem at the nearest hospital. Chillingly, many mela officers, those people in the administration given charge of overseeing pilgrimages, asked social workers running langars (free food stall) to identify the dead.
     
    “How can we declare people dead,” asked an incredulous Dr Sat Pal Aggarwal, an ayurvedic doctor from Nabha who has for years been running a langar at Naina Devi.
     
    “On reaching the stampede site, Bilaspur district administration officials asked volunteers, mostly langarwalas, if they have identified the dead. It is the job of the administration and not the common man to do it. People were dumped quite haphazardly into trucks without following any procedure or checking if they were alive.”
     
    Many eyewitnesses said there was such confusion following the temple trample that health authorities gave all rules a go-by and bundled together those still breathing with those who weren’t anymore. No medical examinations were held and anybody found unconscious was assumed dead.
     
    Vijay, a driver from Bilaspur who ferried 26 bodies to Anandpur Sahib hospital, also substantiated the charge. “When people (officials) put the bodies in my vehicle I found some of them breathing. A few died on their way to hospital. Had there been doctors at the accident spot many would have survived as they were unconscious merely from suffocation.”
     
    Additional district magistrate CP Verma, who is camping at Naina Devi after the stampede, told TOI on Tuesday that the first priority before the administration was to shift people to the hospital at the earliest.
     
    “Considering the number of casualties, it was not possible to conduct medical examinations at the site. So the Anandpur Sahib Civil Hospital was entrusted with the responsibility of declaring people dead,” he said. But, then, didn’t the mishap occur at Naina Devi, 18 km from Anandpur Sahib? “Yes,” Verma said, “the matter of dead and injured being packed together would be inquired properly.”
     
    PC Akela, SDM-cum-mela officer, too, said his priority was to “transfer bodies” from the mishap spot.

  3. says: Rajat Gupta

    One should file a huge claim on district administartion of Bilaspur, for the loss of lives. If a common public litigation be filed, on behalf of all the people who dies in this tragedy, then only the letahrgic administration will wake up. Its not the question of money BUT if the district administartion is made to pay a very-very large sum, then its a lesson learnt for the people who are running the temple administration.

    All these temples earn crores Yet there is no proper facilities, management etc. Even if they spend just 1 year revenue on facilties, administartion, security, Public address system etc, this will be enough money to manage for next 5-6 years.

    The people who are running the temples have got thick skin. Now it is highlighted in media, they will move around and do some work. After 6 months, it will be back to normal. Its only if they are made to pay a very large sum of money Plus criminal proceedings, then they will learn to manage for a long time.

    IT HAPPENS ONLY IN INDIA!!!!!!.

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