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Pilgrims’ plight

Rajkrishna Sachdeva was shocked to see mounds of human waste on the banks of the Falgu where he had gone last week to pray for the salvation of his ancestors.

The reaction of the resident of Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh does not bode well for the thousands of pilgrims set to arrive in Gaya for Pitripaksh Mela from September 30. The Falgu, Vishnupad Temple and Akshaywat are visited by pilgrims throughout the year, but the real rush is seen during the 17-day Pitripaksh Mela with people coming from across the country and abroad.

Residents alleged that every year the district administration pledges special arrangements for the pilgrims but hardly anything was done. The arrangements are inadequate and the pilgrims, mostly the elderly, face difficulties. The situation is in no way different this time.

Sachdeva, in his forties, reached Gaya much before this year’s Pitripaksh for pinddaan (a ritual for the salvation of ancestors). “I had heard a lot about the Falgu. It is such a sacred river that the faithful believe that if one dips a toe in its water, the souls of his or her ancestors attain salvation. But I was shocked to see the garbage littered on the banks of the river,” he told The Telegraph.

Ram Babu, another pilgrim from Biratnagar in Nepal, also rued the lack of cleanliness and shortage of power supply in the town. “It is hot and humid here and power is not available all the time. Gaya is a place of international importance because of the Vishnupad Temple and Bodhgaya. There should be adequate cleanliness, power and water supply arrangements for pilgrims who come here.”

The permanent civic amenities demanded by the residents have eluded them for almost 25 years.

More than 50 Gayapal pandas live in Kathgachchi, around 200m northwest of Vishnupad. Several pilgrims arriving for the Pitripaksh Mela stay at the pandas’ house. But the area does not get municipal water supply for the past 25 years.

Social activist Suresh Narayan, who offers collective pinddaan every year for accident victims around the globe, conducted a survey around 20 days back about the constraints faced by pilgrims and residents alike. The problems highlighted in the report include the problems of the Kathgachchi area.

Septuagenarian resident of the area Ishwar Lal said they have to depend on borewells and hand pumps to get water. “We used to get municipal water supply till around 25 years back. The pipeline network was well spread in the area.”

Nitin Kumar, another resident, said: “We have approached the municipal authorities on several occasions but nothing has been done. Water is supplied to the Vishnupad area from the Dandibagh pumping station and other localities around Kathgachchi area, but not our locality.”

The area has more than 200 houses.

Lighting arrangement is no less affected in the area around Vishnupad. A high mast light installed near Shankracharya park has been out of order since the close of last year’s Pitripaksh on September 27. The high mast light, situated around 50m south of Vishnupad, covers a radius of 300-400m that includes Deo Ghat and a huge portion of the Falgu river.

A transformer installed towards the west of the Vishnupad Temple supplies power to more than 500 houses and shops in and around the temple. However, it leads to problems of low-voltage during Pitripaksh as the power consumption increases because of the rush of pilgrims. “There should be at least another permanent power transformer installed in the area,” Narayan said.

The average age of the pilgrim visiting Gaya for Pitripaksh is around 60 and poor lighting, power or sanitation arrangements affect them the most. The report prepared by Narayan for a voluntary organisation, Ekta Parishad, has been submitted to the district administration.

If the electricity board officials are to be believed, pilgrims would not face power cuts on their trip to Gaya.

Bihar State Electricity Board (BSEB), general manager, Gaya circle, Om Prakash said: “Additional power transformers will be installed, according to requirements, to address the problem of low voltage. Last year, five transformers were installed around the Vishnupad Temple for Pitripaksh and we will ensure round-the-clock power supply this year too.”

He added that the officials and technicians from adjoining districts have also been called to Gaya for immediate rectification of any technical fault. The BSEB will also provide temporary power connection to shops or stalls put up for Pitripaksh in the area. A revenue collection centre would be opened near the Vishnupad Temple,” he added.

The civic body, however, is unable to offer any relief to the residents of Kathgachchi. Gaya Municipal Corporation superintending engineer Ashok Singh said: “A Rs 82 lakh proposal has been prepared to replace the dilapidated pipeline in the Kathgachchi area. Work will start after Pitripaksh Mela. A reservoir will be constructed in the Karsilli area around Vishnupad Temple from where water would be supplied in and around the locality.”

Apart from his survey, Narayan also pointed at open manholes, poor drainage arrangements and lack of good restaurants that inconvenience pilgrims. “There are no good restaurants where pilgrims can get meals of their choice. Public urinals are missing in the area and stray cattle around the town can also injure the elderly,” he said.

He added that the revenue collected by the Lodging House Committee throughout the year from vehicles as service fee should be utilised for making permanent arrangements for the pilgrims. The committee, which functions under the district administration, looks after arrangements made for pilgrims in and around Vishnupad Temple.

Administrator of the committee Akhilesh Kumar said: “Eight committees have been constituted to look after cleanliness and sanitation, water supply, accommodation, transport, law and order, roads and drains, health and cultural affairs. Open manholes and drains are being covered with cemented slabs on the lanes.”

Focusing on the specifics, Gaya district spokesperson and district public relations officer Dhiraj Narayan Sudhanshu said bleaching powder, sodium chloride and lime powder are being used to clean the pind vedis and ponds.

The administration is also arranging for accommodation of pilgrims who would not stay in hotels, dharamshalas or at the houses of Gayapal pandas. Around 44 temporary public distribution system shops will be set up near the accommodation centres. Pilgrims can get kerosene and other edible items at the shops at a subsidised rate.

Sudhanshu said: “Thirty-one places, including some schools, have been identified to provide accommodation to the pilgrims. Commercial vehicles, including autorickshaws and mini buses, will ply on four routes — Vishnupad to Pretshila, Gandhi Maidan to Vishnupad, Gaya railway station to Vishnupad and Vishnupad to Bodhgaya — at a fixed rate. A copy of the fare chart would be pasted on the vehicles. Buses ferrying pilgrims can be parked at Gaya College’s Khel Parisar ground, Sikaria Mor bus stand on Kendui road (Gaya-Bodhgaya riverside road) and near the Pretshila hills.”

For free healthcare, 14 camps would be set up at different places, including near Vishnupad Temple and Gaya railway station. While the three of the camps would function round-the-clock and have ambulance facility, the remaining 11 would be open for 12 hours from 6am.

The administration, keen to protect pilgrims, will keep a vigil with closed circuit television cameras installed in and around the Vishnupad Temple. A helpline centre and a control room would also be set up for pilgrims to register their complaints.