Kerala High Court: A Division Bench of C.T. Ravikumar and K. Haripal, JJ., allowed various petitions in connection with Sabrimala pilgrimage and heard them jointly.

The petitioners sought direction to enhance the permissible number of pilgrims to 10000 on the grounds that earlier, during Makaravilakku season more than 1,00,000 devotees used to come for darshan on certain days and that a huge infrastructure was available at Sannidhanam for pilgrims. Additional prayers were made by the petitioner of W.P.(C) No.23885 to direct the respondents to allow all the devotees who hold the Covid-19 negative certificates to undertake Sabarimala pilgrimage and not to insist for production of any other certificate for the sacred journey. It was also requested to direct Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) to take steps to avert extinction of the burning fire lit up near the banyan tree as part of customary ceremony (Aazhi) and to intensify it besides to permit pilgrims to offer the coconut filled with ghee called “Ney Thenga”.

A decision was taken by the Government to permit pilgrimage at Sabrimala in a restrictive manner during Mandala-Makaravilakku season, taking into account the Covid-19 pandemic situation. The state had constituted a High Level Committee (“the Committee”) for formulating measures for crowd management in Sabarimala and other locations in the State in connection with the Sabarimala pilgrimage. The Committee had taken following decisions:

a) The number of devotees permitted to visit may be fixed as 1000 on weekdays and 2000 on weekends. Maximum devotees on Mandalapooja and Makaravilakku days may be fixed as 5000.

b) For effectively carrying out pilgrim’s digital queue, virtual queue management system would be implemented by the Police department.

c) All devotees should provide Covid negative certificate from an authorized lab.

Later on, the Committee, by its decision dated 15-10-2020 enhanced the number of pilgrims on weekdays, on weekends and on special pooja day respectively as to 2000, 3000 and 5000 based on inflow of the registered pilgrims at Sabarimala during the initial 10 days of the pilgrimage and the fact that about 40% of pilgrims who had register might not undertake the pilgrimage during current situation of the pandemic. Also, due to inconclusiveness of the Antigen test results, only those pilgrims who would reach Nilakkal with a certificate obtained from any NABL accredited, ICMR approved Laboratories after conducting RT-PCR test done within 48 hours of their reaching Nilakkal were permitted to conduct pilgrimage.

It was submitted by TDB that, when pilgrimage was possible only for persons who got registered in the virtual queue management system it would be possible to fix the time for registrants in such a manner to avoid crowding in Sannidhanam. It was further submitted that with strict adherence to Covid-19 protocol it would be possible to permit 10000 people to undertake pilgrimage.

The Court held that in view of the surge of Covid-19 positive cases, number of pilgrims was rightly decided to be limited and that it could be safely fixed as 5000. On grievance regarding the extinction of burning fire near the sannidhanam called “Aazhi”, the Court observed that were already taken to avert such a situation and to maintain “Aazhi”. The Court after taking into account the fact that the antigen test could not be considered as a conclusive test regarding the covid positivity upheld the decision of the Committee to insist that Covid-19 Negative certificate should be one obtained after conducting RTPCR test within 48 hours of reaching Nilakkal, from NABL accredited ICMR approved laboratories. In view of the above, the instant petitions were dismissed as infructuous. [Travancore Devaswom Board Employees Front v. State of Kerala, WP(C) No. 23869 of  2020(G), decided on 18-12-2020]

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