Better healthcare, toll free complaints helpline for Sabarimala pilgrims

Pathanamthitta district administration introduces new measures and amenities

Sabarimala, Jan 16: Two dozen emergency medical centres, a toll free number to register complaints and safe drinking water kiosks along the trekking route are among a host of new facilities introduced for pilgrims to the Sabarimala hill shrine in Kerala.

The temple, dedicated to Lord Ayyappa and located in the district of Pathanamthitta in Kerala, attracts millions of devotees from around India every year. With the numbers expected to grow steadily in the coming years, the state government and the local administration are racing to build infrastructure, improve amenities and streamline operations to make sure that the increased activity does not damage the pristine forests that surround the shrine.

The Pathanamthitta district administration, which coordinates the on-ground activities of the around 30 departments that assist in the management of the pilgrimage, has rolled out several initiatives over the past few months to cater to the needs of the devotees.

Among these are 24 emergency medical centres lining the steep path leading up to the shrine. These centres are manned 24X7 by volunteers trained to provide free oxygen to pilgrims who feel uneasy on the trek, besides emergency first aid, stretcher teams and hotlines to the nearest hospital.

A 24-hour Trauma Care Centre, equipped with a pharmacy and ambulance, has been set up at Elavunkal with the help of Muthoot Hospital in Pathanamthitta. The move has addressed the absence of healthcare facilities along a nearly 30 km stretch of the pilgrimage route.

The district administration has also taken action to tackle overcharging by shops and the poor quality of food and service offered to pilgrims, who can now call the toll free number 1800-425-1606 and register their complaints. The duty magistrate has been tasked with inspecting the complaint within an hour of receiving it and initiating swift action.

This season shops/hotels accused of fleecing pilgrims were raided and fined a total of nearly Rs 30 lakhs.

Disaster prevention and mitigation has also been on top of the agenda for the authorities. Senior district officials and experts from Kerala's Institute of Land and Disaster Management conducted a day-long walk from the base camp in Pampa to the Sannidhanam (temple complex) and along the road to Pathanamthitta to identify risk points and take preventive measures.

An emergency operation centre, set up at Pampa two years ago to function for a short duration during the peak pilgrimage season, remains open longer now and has been fitted with communication equipment and data collection systems in readiness to handle potential disasters. 

"We are working on a priority basis to improve infrastructure and amenities in and around Sabarimala in keeping with the rise in the number of pilgrims," said District Collector S. Harikishore. "We have begun by strengthening healthcare services, ensuring quality food and clean drinking water and the safety of pilgrims on the difficult trek. More facilities will be provided in the days to come."

New tourist information kiosks for visitors have also been set up at Pampa and at the Sannidhanam.

Among the most significant programmes initiated during this season is the Mission Green Sabarimala projet to boost conservation efforts and rid the shrine and surrounding region of plastic and waste.

More than 800 workers have been employed by the Sabarimala Sanitation Society (SSS) to clean the premises continually. Welfare measures for these workers include TA/DA and other allowances in addition to their daily wages.

Hundreds of volunteers and pilgrims are participating in an awareness campaign to cut the use of plastics in the area before tougher controls including bans on bringing plastic items are introduced over the coming years.

Among the key eco-friendly initiatives taken up by the district administration this season is transporting the plastic waste collected to recycling centres, instead of incinerating it close to the source. The process, once streamlined, is also expected to generate additional revenues.

Around 250 additional waste collection bins have already been installed in the area and private partners in the Mission Green Sabarimala project are helping to replace plastic items brought by pilgrims with cloth bags at exchange counters.

Under the Mission Green Sabarimala project, efforts are also on to provide drinking water at kiosks using the Reverse Osmosis (RO) process. This will have the dual advantage of providing safe drinking water to pilgrims and cutting down the use of PET water bottles that are among the biggest plastic pollutants in Sabarimala.

An RO plant is already in operation at Pampa and the Kerala Water Authority has been requested to install four more of these on a pilot basis.

Over 30 activities have been conducted as a part of Mission Green Sabarimala this season and more are planned in the future, said the District Collector.

The state government has sanctioned more than Rs1.28 crore for implementing various projects and an additional Rs 75 lakhs has been granted by the state’s sanitation agency, Suchitwa Mission, for various activities under the Mission Green Sabarimala.

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. 

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