Kerala in mourning as Sabarimala toll mounts to 104 (Second Lead)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

VANDIPERIYAR/KUMILY - As grieving relatives thronged hospitals to identify their kin among the dead in Kerala’s Sabarimala tragedy, which has claimed 104 lives so far, a government report Saturday said the stampede in the Pulumedu forest was caused after a tiff between taxi, autorickshaw drivers and pilgrims turned violent.

Meanwhile, Kerala has declared three days of mourning as more bodies were brought to hospitals. Nearly 60 people are said to be injured.

The stampede occurred around 8 p.m. Friday when the pilgrims were returning after watching the celestial Makara Jyothi light, the most important event of the three-month pilgrimage, from a hillock some 30 km from the Sabarimala temple dedicated to Lord Ayyappa in Pathanamthitta district.

The tragedy took place in Pulumedu, a forested area about 10 km from the Vandiperiyar town.

A report by the state forest department says a tiff between autorickshaw, taxi drivers and pilgrims turned violent, leading to the stampede.

The report says a huge crowd had gathered at the Pulumedu hillock to witness the Makara Jyothi. After seeing the light, some of the devotees got into an autorickshaw to go back to Vandiperiyar as the driver was charging less than the jeeps being run as taxis.

This sparked off a tiff between the auto and jeep drivers and some devotees too joined in. The argument turned ugly when some angry pilgrims smashed the windscreens of the jeeps, leading to panic that caused the stampede, the report said.

A witness said the road leading to the hillock was narrow and the crowds returning were huge and unmanageable. The policemen were few to handle the commotion.

The bodies were first brought to the Vandiperiyar government hospital and from there they was moved to the government hospital in Kumily in Idukki district, nearly 15 km from the accident site, where a team of 60 doctors conducted autopsies.

Several grieving devotees tried to identify their near and dear ones among the dead while others tended to the injured.

More than 70 victims have been identified, of them one was from Sri Lanka, 29 from Tamil Nadu, 25 from Karnataka, 16 from Andhra Pradesh, three from Kerala, hospital authorities said.

Earlier, state Finance Minister Thomas Isaac, who visited the Kumily hospital said that a jeep had lost control and rammed into some pilgrims when over a lakh people were returning to the base, leading to the chaos.

Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan, who arrived in Kumily on a naval helicopter, announced a state holiday Saturday and a three-day mourning.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called Achuthanandan Saturday morning to convey his grief. He also sanctioned a relief of Rs.1 lakh each to the kin of those killed and Rs.50,000 for the injured from the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund, PMO sources in New Delhi said.

Achuthanandan said the Kerala government would also announce compensation to the kin of the dead and the injured.

Finance Minister Isaac had said the state government will meet the expenses for treating the injured.

“A thorough investigation will be done and the state government will meet all the expenses for transporting the bodies to their homes. As the first step, a sum of Rs.5,000 to the injured has been sanctioned,” said Isaac.

Calling it a national tragedy, Defence Minister A.K. Antony said he had directed the defence forces to see that all help is provided.

State Health Minister P.K. Sreemathi also visited the Kumily Government hospital.

The Sabarimala temple is in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district, situated on the Western Ghat ranges at an altitude of 914 metres above the sea level, four kilometres uphill from the river Pampa.

Pamba, the base camp to the Sabarimala temple, has been overflowing with pilgrims since the past few days.

The sighting of the Makara Jyothi celestial flame on the horizon marks the finale of the three-month-long pilgrim season at the mountain shrine.

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