Anti-plastic and clean-up campaign intensifies in Sabarimala

  • Devotees urged not to bring plastic during pilgrimage or discard clothes in river
  • Pathanamthitta District Administration redoubles awareness and cleanliness drive with Mission Green Sabarimala project

Sabarimala, Jan 8: Stricter regulations, including fines for bringing plastic items, are in store for pilgrims to the famed hill shrine of Sabarimala in Kerala, as the state government intensifies its campaign to tackle the mounting pollution and waste generated by the millions of people who visit the holy site every year.

The district administration of Pathanamthitta, where the shrine is located, has launched the Mission Green Sabarimala project this year to carry out focused awareness drives and plastic collection exercises, before tougher controls including a complete ban on bringing plastics, possible stop-and-search activities and fines are put in place over the next two years.

Sabarimala, the abode of Lord Ayyappa, is sited within the protected Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Western Ghats, on the banks of the river Pampa. It attracts millions of devotees every year from across India, making it one of the largest annual pilgrimages in the world.

The growing popularity of the shrine, leading to greater human activity in the forested area, has also resulted in deeper problems including water and land pollution, waste management issues  and damage to wildlife; which the authorities are hoping can be greatly mitigated if the pilgrims become more environment-conscious and responsible.

“We are requesting Sabarimala devotees to not bring plastic bags, packets, bottles and containers with them or discard waste indiscriminately around the holy site and the river,” said Pathanamthitta District Collector S. Harikishore. “While it is understandable that people who travel for days, from other states for example, need to carry and store things, they can use alternatives such as bags made of cloth or other biodegradable materials, reusable containers and bottles.”

Lakhs of devotees from states including Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra travel to Sabarimala during the annual pilgrim season from mid-November to mid-January. The shrine is also open for prayers on the first five days of every month in the Malayalam calendar. The Kerala government is relying on the co-operation of these pilgrims to advance the Sabarimala clean-up mission.

Reducing the use of plastics is at the core of Mission Green Sabarimala project’s awareness campaign. Volunteers from local schools, the women’s self-help group Kudumbashree, the Kerala Forest Department, the state’s sanitation agency the Shuchitwa Mission, and the Travancore Devaswom Board, which administers the temple, are assisting in the implementation of the programme.

Under the Mission Green Sabarimala project, the district administration has installed an additional 250 bins along the trekking route to collect garbage.

Around 30 ‘eco-guards’ have been posted along the Pampa and in resting areas for clean-up operations and to remind pilgrims that dumping clothes and waste in the river is a punishable offence.

The recent practice of devotees discarding clothes in the Pampa has become a serious environmental issue due to the sheer numbers of pilgrims and volume of clothes that needs to be dredged out to keep the river clean.

The Devaswom Board and private partners in the project have set up plastic exchange counters where pilgrims can deposit their plastic waste in exchange for cloth bags. There are hoardings, notices and signages along the pilgrim route and campaign volunteers have been distributing pamphlets to inform devotees about the new measures and recommending alternatives to plastic.

The awareness drive has been intensified through the media, social networks and a dedicated website www.missiongreensabarimala.com has been set up to provide information and seek public participation in the project.

The Kerala Water Authority is assisting in the installation of a Reverse Osmosis plant at the base of the trekking route to provide safe and clean drinking water. The Travancore Devaswom Board has also undertaken a project to install around 50 kiosks providing drinking water along the route. These kiosks are expected to significantly reduce the use of plastic water bottles, one of the major pollutants in the area. An estimated two million PET bottles are sold along the trekking path every year.

The Mission Green Sabarimala project has largely focused on awareness building this year, but once the alternative infrastructure is in fully in place, tighter regulations will be imposed to keep the shrine and its surrounding regions clean, said Mr Harikishore.

The Kerala High Court has already ordered for the strict implementation from February 1 of a blanket ban imposed by the State Pollution Control Board on the sale and stocking of plastic containers, plastic covers, polyethylene bags, and other plastic materials in and around the shrine.

The authorities are also considering a ban on bringing plastic materials to Sabarimala and the use of PET bottles, said Mr Harikishore. The future ban could be backed by punitive measures such as fines and vehicle searches and frisking.

“Our larger aim is to make Sabarimala completely plastic free. We are hoping to have an effective alternative system in place before we impose a total ban so the visitors are not inconvenienced,” he said. “However, our earnest request to the devotees is that in keeping with the spirit of the pilgrimage, they contribute their share in maintaining the purity of the holy site and help protect the forests and wildlife in Sabarimala.” 

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