On November 2, the Supreme Court directed the removal of all illegal structures at the Sabarimala temple. “Prima facie, if all of this is found to be illegal, you will have to demolish them,” a bench led by Justice Madan B Lokur told the Kerala government after perusing an interim report from the Central Empowered Committee, which monitors the implementation of the apex court’s orders on mining and industrial activities around forest areas.

The court had tasked the committee to prepare a report on environmental damage at Sabarimala after Shobheendran, an activist based in Kozhikode, brought to its notice, around four year ago, the “indiscriminate construction” at the shrine.

“I am not against providing amenities to the pilgrims but it should be done according to the Sabarimala Master Plan,” Shobheendran told Scroll.in this week. “My aim is to protect Sabarimala’s ecology.”

The master plan, approved by the Kerala government in 2007, is aimed at providing the Sabarimala pilgrims “environment friendly” amenities like toilets, cloak rooms, restaurants.

The court’s directive, however, did not receive much attention amid the agitation against women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple. Hindutva groups and Kerala’s Opposition parties have been protesting against the Supreme court’s September 28 ruling quashing the ban on menstruating women offering prayers at Sabarimala.

Sabarimala, visited by millions of Ayyappa devotees every year, is one South India’s most popular pilgrimage centres. Ayyappa is the principal deity of the shrine located in the Periyar Tiger Reserve on Kerala’s side of the Western Ghats. Sabarimala is also the origin of the Pamba river, which caters to the daily water needs of half a million people in Pathanamthitta, Alappuzha and Kottayam districts.

Illegal constructions have sprung up along the river, the Central Empowered Committee found, as also at Nilakkal and Sannidhanam, the temple complex.

Nilakkal is one of the entry points to Sabarimala. From there, the pilgrims travel 18 km to the Pamba basin to perform the mandatory ablutions to “wash away all sins” before undertaking the arduous 4-km forest trek to the Ayyappa shrine.

Sabarimala's Ayyappa temple is one South India’s most popular pilgrimage centres. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Ignoring the Sabarimala Master Plan

The first master plan for Sabarimala was prepared by Kerala Assembly’s Legislative Committee on Environment in 1998. “This is the people’s Master Plan for Sabarimala to safeguard its sanctity and serenity of Sabarimala while providing basic amenities to the pilgrims,” its preface read.

It laid down that all “developmental work” at Sabarimala must be done in line with the guidelines and directions of the master plan.

In 2007, the Cabinet approved a new master plan, developed by IL&FS Ecosmart, a private company, and incorporating most of the 1998 plan. The Central Empowered Committee has blamed the state for ignoring this plan, The Times of India reported. “Though the master plan was approved in 2007, the Travancore Devaswom Board said the layout plan, a mandatory first step to guide all developmental activities, of all projects in Nilakkal, Pamba and Sannidhanam is still under preparation,” the report said.

This toilet complex built on the Pamba's banks in violation of the Sabarimala Master Plan was destroyed by the floods. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Illegal construction made floods worse in Pamba

The master plan prohibits construction on the Pamba river bank. Yet, the Travancore Devaswom Board, which administers the temple, had erected several buildings on the river bank and even on its bed.

All these structures – a couple of two-storied toilet complexes, a hotel complex, the Ramamoorthy Mandapam free food distribution centre – were destroyed in the floods that ravaged Kerala in August. The Pamba was in spate following heavy rains and the release of excess water from Kakki and Anathode reservoirs of the Sabarigiri hydel power project.

The Central Empowered Committee noted, according to The Times of India, that these buildings blocked the flow of the flood waters during the peak rainy season damaging the river banks.

This hotel complex on the river bank was destroyed by the August floods. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

NK Sukumaran Nair, general secretary of the Pamba Parirakshana Samithi, or the Organisation to Preserve the Pamba, said damage from the floods would have been limited if the river had adequate space to flow. He alleged that the buildings had been constructed not on the banks but on the river bed. “These illegal buildings obstructed the river’s natural flow,” Nair said. “We had warned the board not to construct buildings on the river. Some of the unaffected buildings, such as the Maramath Complex lie less than 50 metres from the bank.” Maramath Complex is the office of the Devaswom Board’s works department.

NK Sukumaran Nair said damage from the floods would have been limited if illegal constructions had not blocked the Pamba river's flow. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Bacteria in water is 500 times above normal

Another important problem the Central Empowered Committee looked into was the pollution caused by the discharge of sewage. The Devaswom Board has installed two sewage treatment plants, one each at Sannidhanam and Pamba. The committee found that the treatment plant at Sannidhanam has not received the mandatory operational licence from the state’s Pollution Control Board. Sewage tanks in the Sannidhanam area are not all connected to the plant and sewage overflows from many of them.

Sewage overflow is the primary reason for the contamination of the Pamba. The Pollution Control Board has been collecting water samples from the Pamba since 2011-’12, during non-peak and peak pilgrim seasons. Tests have revealed that the presence of faecal coliform bacteria goes up during the peak pilgrim season.

Water is considered potable if the presence of faecal coliform bacteria is less than 2,500 MPN per 100 ml. However, the presence of faecal coliform in a water sample collected from the Pamba in 2014-’15 was found to be a whopping 13,20,000 MPN.

“The major reason for this contamination is non-functioning of sewage treatment plant, built at a cost of Rs 29 crore,” said Nair. “All sewage tanks were not connected to the plant and the waste from these tanks is dumped directly into the river. This reckless pollution puts at risk the health of millions of people who depend on the Pamba for daily water needs.”

Sewage from overflow tanks contaminates the Pamba river, especially during the peak pilgrim season. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

He feared the pollution level may hit new highs this pilgrim season since both sewage treatment plants suffered severe damage in the floods. “This Mandala-Makaravilakku season beginning on November 17 is going to be a testing period for the people living on the banks of the Pamba,” Nair added.

Waste accumulations attracts wild boars

The Central Empowered Committee criticised the Devaswom Board for polluting the environment through unscientific waste management. “Improper disposal of waste, non-segregation of wet food waste from dry solid waste, leakage in sewage and the resultant dirty surroundings have made Sannidhanam and Pamba breeding ground for wild boars,” its report said.

Wild boars feasting on food waste are a common sight at Pamba and Sannidhanam. They roam freely and litter the surroundings. They are also seen drinking water even as the pilgrims take dips in the Pamba.

Three months after the floods, debris is still being cleared from the river bank. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Concrete jungle makes for a heat trap

The committee’s report noted the disappearance of greenery around Sannidhanam. “The Swami Ayyappa shrine located in the centre of evergreen forests initially had only one main structure and the temple was surrounded by greenery,” it said. “The location of the temple site at Sannidhanam has become a concrete jungle occupying around 63.5 acres of land while a large area over and above this has been occupied illegally.”

It also observed how the concrete structures affect the environment: “The concrete jungle around Sabarimala shrine absorbs/traps heat during the day and releases it during night, thereby seriously impacting the micro-climate within the open forests as well as the adjoining forest landscape.”

'Sannidhanam has become a concrete jungle spread over 63.5 acres.' Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Sannidhanam has many concrete guest houses and work is going on at several sites around the temple complex. Construction material is being transported from Pamba by tractors even now. Just last month, Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran inaugurated a new 52-room guest house – Darshanam Complex – a few metres away from Sannidhanam.

Nair said Sabarimala lies in a seismic zone and the unhindered construction could cause landslides. “The Travancore Devaswom Board has only commercial interests and they are destroying the environment,” he alleged. “The CEC directive to stop all construction at Nilakkal, Pamba and Sannidhanam will go a long way in preserving Sabarimala.”

The Devaswom Board will have to stop the construction of this building on the river bank as it violates the Sabarimala Master Plan. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Master plans remain on paper

Both the 1998 and 2007 master plans suggested establishing a base camp for the pilgrims at Nilakkal. The Farming Corporation of Kerala Limited had even handed over 250 acres of land for this purpose in 2005. The plan was to divide the land into ten 25-acre blocks, each providing accommodation facilities to 10,000 pilgrims and parking for their vehicles. The proposal remains on paper two decades after it was first mooted.

The Devaswom Board has not even built a shed at Nilakkal where the pilgrims could wait for buses to Pamba. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

On November 6, when the temple opened for a day for Chittira Atta Puja, the pilgrims were found urinating and defecating in the open for want of toilets. The construction of a toilet complex has just started at Nilakkal. There is also no demarcated parking. The Devaswom Board has not even built a shed at Nilakkal where the pilgrims could wait for buses to Pamba. State-run buses are the only vehicles allowed to play on this route.

Nair of the Pampa Parirakshana Samithi reasoned that developing Nilakkal into a base camp would reduce the burden on Pamba. “Pilgrims will not rush to Pamba if they have proper facilities at Nilakkal,” he explained. “This will reduce the pollution of the Pamba river.”

Pilgrims concerned about shrine’s future

Saju Surendran, 45, who had come from Thiruvananthapuram for his 16th visit to Sabarimala early this month, said he was worried about the fate of Sabarimala. “I was shocked to see the damage caused by the floods,” he said. “This place looks entirely different from my last visit. I believe the Pamba has changed its course after the floods. Indiscriminate construction on the river bank would have aggravated the flooding. There are no toilets for the pilgrims. Can Sabarimala accommodate millions of pilgrims during the peak season?”

Saji Kumar said it is the duty of the pilgrims to reclaim the lost glory of the Pamba river. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Sajikumar, 40, also from Thiruvananthapuram, said the pilgrims could not imagine going to the Sabarimala without taking a dip in the holy Pamba. “So it is the duty of the pilgrims to reclaim the lost glory of Pamba,” he said. “I am sure with Ayyappa’s support, we will get the river back.”

He said the damage from the floods could have been avoided if the Devaswom Board had constructed the buildings away from the river bank. “The Travancore Devaswom Board wants to make money,” he claimed. They are not bothered to provide facilities to the pilgrims. As long as they get money as offerings from the pilgrims, they are happy.”

MR Manoj, 48, from Pathanamthitta, who works with the United States Army as a quality check expert, blamed unplanned construction for the damage caused by the floods. “Sabarimala is a hill shrine,” he said. “It has to be preserved. Pilgrims want to trek the holy hill breathing fresh air. We don’t want unnecessary construction here.”

MR Manoj felt that indiscriminate construction on the Pamba's banks made the August floods more destructive. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen