The Kerala High Court issued detailed directives for the Mandala-Makaravilakku Festival, instructing the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) to provide essential facilities to stranded pilgrims.

The Special Commissioner of Sabarimala had submitted a Special Commissioner's Report (SSCR) following the Court's November 14, 2023 orders on crowd management. The Court noted that any failure by the TDB to provide essential facilities to pilgrims would be treated seriously.

The Bench comprising Justice Anil K. Narendran and Justice G. Girish observed, “When the pilgrims are stranded at the places identified in the order of this Court dated 14.12.2023, they shall be provided with drinking water and light refreshments, with the support of the Police, District Administration or the Local Self Government Institution”.

Advocate Deepu Thankan appeared for the Respondent.

The Special Commissioner of Sabarimala filed an SSCR in response to Court orders dated November 14, 2023 regarding crowd management at Sabarimala. The Court, in its previous order, had directed the regulation of vehicle movement using a 'hold and release' mechanism and emphasised safety, particularly for women, children, and senior citizens, instructing police to conduct sector patrolling.

The District Police Chief's report highlighted pilgrims' lack of awareness about real-time queues, crowds, and weather conditions at Pamba and Sannidhanam, leading to conflicts with the police during blocked vehicle situations. To address this, the report recommended that the TDB update the 'live status' of queues and crowds on their website. In response, the Court directed the board to announce this information through public announcement systems at Edathavalams.

Furthermore, the Court had earlier directed the TDB to ensure proper facilities for Sabarimala pilgrims in Edathavalams/temples during the Mandala-Makaravilakku festival. Temple Advisory Committees were instructed to assist the Sub-Group Officer, and Assistant Devaswom Commissioners were directed to conduct periodic inspections.

In a subsequent order on December 13, 2023, considering crowd management issues, the Court had limited the spot booking to 10,000 when the Virtual-Q booking reached 80,000. The Chief Police Co-ordinator at Sannidhanam and the Special Police Officer at Pamba were tasked with regulating entry, restricting those without Virtual-Q or spot booking. This restriction was to be communicated to pilgrims through media. Later, on December 19, 2023, the court allowed an increase in the spot booking limit to 15,000 on days with 80,000 Virtual-Q bookings, considering footfall and queue safety.

The Senior Government Pleader reported that on December 24, 2023, a total of 1,00,969 pilgrims had darshan at Sannidhanam through 'Pathinettampadi.' Additionally, approximately 25,000 pilgrims had a 'civil darshan.' Consequently, the total footfall at Sannidhanam on that day exceeded 1,25,000.

The Court, referring to the case of Ram Mohan Das v Travancore Devaswom Board [1975 KLT 55], emphasized that the TDB is responsible for managing the properties and affairs of both incorporated and unincorporated Devaswoms. It is required to organize daily worship, ceremonies, and festivals in temples according to their customs, functioning in a role similar to that of trustees.

The Court held that in situations where vehicles carrying pilgrims are obstructed, the TDB, as mandated by Sections 15A and 31 of the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, is obligated to fulfil its statutory duty by providing proper facilities to pilgrims. This includes offering Annadhanam, drinking water, toilet facilities, etc. The Temple Advisory Committees of these Edathavalams/temples, following Section 31A of the Act and the rules (bye-laws) framed under sub-section (3) of Section 31A, are also legally bound to assist the Sub-Group Officer in providing such facilities to Sabarimala pilgrims.

The Court, in an order dated December 26, 2023, directed the State Police Chief to maintain constant vigilance on crowd management at Ponkunnam, Mundakayam, Pala, Kanjirappalli, Thirunakkara, Ettumanoor, and Vaikom. The Court instructed the Devaswom Commissioner to ensure that when vehicles were blocked at Edathavalams/temples, pilgrims received Annadhanam, drinking water, toilet facilities, etc.

The Bench held that the failure of the TDB to provide these facilities would be viewed seriously, given its role analogous to trustees. Assistant Commissioners in charge of Edathavalams/temples at mentioned locations were directed to inspect immediately and submit reports to the Devaswom Commissioner, focusing on the issues faced by pilgrims on December 24, 2023, and December 25, 2023. The reports, along with an affidavit from the Devaswom Commissioner, were to be presented before the court.

The TDB was instructed to request pilgrims at Sannidhanam, through public address systems, to leave promptly after darshan to reduce footfall, allowing stranded pilgrims to move towards Nilakkal and Pamba for darshan. Pilgrims were to be informed through public address systems and police patrolling vehicles to cooperate with imposed restrictions.

Accordingly, the Court listed the matter for January 3, 2024.

Cause Title: Suo Motu v State Of Kerala

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