The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Death trap or not, pilgrims vow return

Wai (Satara), Jan. 27: Haribhau Shinde, a small man in his late thirties, comes here every year. This year was no exception ' only things went horribly wrong. He was witness to the Kalubai temple stampede in which over 300 people are being feared crushed to death.

His brother and sister-in-law were in the crowd, too, come here for the first time because he told them to. They survived.

But his brother, Prakash, lies on the bed in Mission Hospital here, with severe injury in his legs and head. His speech is incoherent. He is restless, tossing and turning, barely still for a moment.

Haribhau, who lives in a village near Pune, about 60 km from Wai, had set up his prasad stall as usual on the slope that leads to the temple on the top of a hillock. But around 1 pm, there was a commotion. He looked up to see there was chaos on the slope that led out of the temple, barricaded with bamboo poles on two sides.

'In 10 minutes, it was over. Then we only saw dead bodies. There were so many. I frantically searched for my brother and sister-in-law. My brother was lying unconscious. We brought him to the hospital.'

'His leg may be all right soon, but there may be a brain damage,' he says. Prakash's wife stands silently at the head of the bed. She could not be found for long.

'After the stampede, some people lost their cool and set shops on fire,' he added. Most of the shops on the temple ground and the approach road were burnt and razed. Slow smoke rises from them even 36 hours later.

Though the bodies that piled up at the entrance to the temple have been cleared ' the official toll is 258 ' a torn sari, a blood-smeared pair of trousers or an odd chappal lie about. The festival has come to a grinding halt. Most of the victims in the stampede ' local people have strong faith in devi's power to grant wishes ' were people like Haribhau and Prakash, poor people from Satara and nearby areas like Pune and Konkan, who came every year for the devi darshan as part of the Mandhardevi yatra that culminates in a 10-day festival at the temple.

They come in lakhs ' this year an estimated five lakh pilgrims were visiting the temple on Tuesday, because a Tuesday in conjunction with a purnima (full moon) is considered doubly auspicious ' and climb up the narrow slope that leads to the temple, and climb down an even narrower slope, after tying a thread ' their mannat (wish) on a tree.

It is a death trap, like so many other pilgrim centres in the country. And as with so many other pilgrim tragedies in the country, the administration has woken up only after it has happened. Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar, who visited Wai yesterday, has announced a sum of Rs 15 crore from the Centre to widen the roads leading to the temple, said Satara district collector Subarao Patil.

The police today began investigation into the stampede by recording the statements of witnesses and taking a map of the site. Satara district superintendent of police C.G. Kumbhar said a case under Section 304 (culpabale homicide not amounting to murder) and other sections of the IPC had been registered.

Chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, who had left for Wai as soon as the news arrived, yesterday announced a judicial inquiry.

'The incident occurred as some people who were going in came into the exit path,' Rao said, dismissing that a short circuit led to the rush. 'There could have been some sparks from an electric post, but there was no short circuit.'

But the devotees will come, measures in place or not. For the pilgrims, even for those who barely managed to survive, the darshan remains the same. 'Ma ka bulawa ayega to phir ayenge,' says Haribhau.

'Zaroor ayenge,' says Gorakh Krishna Detke, from Tarle, near Wai. 'This is all the goddess' doing ' there must be some good in it,' he says, as he writhes in pain.

'Ten bodies, which are yet to be identified, have been sent to Pune,' he said. Questions have been asked about the number of policemen on duty when the stampede occurred. Rao said that the police would be better prepared to provide the exact figure.

But Wai police station could not confirm the number of policemen present, either. But eyewitnesses said only a handful of policemen were present.

After the incident, there are indications that the district police will press many more men into duty next year. 'But how can a few policemen prevent a flood of human bodies' asked an official.

Agrees Mohan Mohite, husband of Sarita Mohite, who is being treated at the Mission Hospital. Sarita still shudders at the thought of the 16-year-old daughter of her neighbour who came with her from Pune and who was trampled to death before her eyes. But she nods when her husband says that they will come again definitely.

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