A day after the stampede at the Mata Vaishno Devi hill shrine, authorities on Sunday tightened arrangements with full deployment of security personnel and announced a slew of steps to prevent any congestion at the temple complex as the rush of pilgrims continued.
A high-powered probe committee set up by Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha visited the site and appealed to the general public to share videos, statements or any other evidence about the incident.
Mr Sinha chaired the first meeting of the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board after the stampede and several decisions were taken to ensure the safety of devotees, including provision for 100 percent online registration.
More than 27,000 pilgrims had visited the cave shrine on Saturday, while over 15,000 visited on Sunday till 6 PM, according to officials.
The yatra that registered a footfall of over 55.77 lakh in 2021, compared to 17 lakh the previous year due to the coronavirus pandemic, was going on smoothly, they said.
Twelve people lost their lives and 16 others were injured in the stampede in the early hours of Saturday after a fight between two groups of pilgrims during the New Year rush. Many eyewitnesses said that there was overcrowding as people were staying back on the shrine premises after darshan instead of returning to the base camp at Katra.
It was the first such tragedy at the revered shrine, located atop the Trikuta hills in Reasi district, where pilgrims reach after a 13-km trek.
“Directions issued for physical and systematic improvements wherever required after critical examination, augmentation of infrastructure, online booking to be made 100 percent,” LG Sinha said in a series of tweets after the meeting which was attended by senior officials, including Board’s Chief Executive Officer Ramesh Kumar.
“Steps including decongestion of the entire track, appropriate use of technology for effective crowd and queue management, RFID tracking to be put in place. Members of the board to monitor the implementation,” Mr Sinha said.
He also announced an additional ex gratia grant of Rs 5 lakh each to the families of devotees who lost their lives in the incident.
At the temple complex, police personnel encouraged pilgrims not to linger after paying obeisance and to obey COVID-19 protocols.
“As we entered the sanctum sanctorum of the Mata to offer our prayers, we were greeted by the words ‘Darshan Karo Katra Challo’ (pay obeisance and leave for Katra base camp) from the deployed policemen,” Motiya Rani (58), a resident of Panipat in Haryana, told PTI on Sunday.
Rani, accompanied by her two sons, their wives and five grandchildren, said the yatra was going on smoothly and they did not face any problem.
“I have been visiting Mata to seek her blessings on the first day of every year for many years. I reached Katra on December 31 and was scheduled to visit the shrine on Saturday but the unfortunate incident delayed our visit by a day this time,” she said.
People were as usual queuing up at the registration counters, eagerly waiting for their turn to offer prayers.
Manoj Kumar (36), a resident of Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh, said postponing the pilgrimage never came to mind after hearing about the “sad incident”.
“What happened yesterday (Saturday) was an unfortunate incident. We have been waiting for this day for a long time and are happy to reach here to offer our prayers and seek the blessings of the presiding deity,” he said.
“I have been here many times in the past and know this place very well. I was surprised to hear about the tragic loss in the stampede,” Kumar said.
The three-member inquiry team headed by Principal Secretary (Home) Shaleen Kabra and comprising Divisional Commissioner, Jammu, Rajiv Langar and Additional Director General of Police (Jammu) Mukesh Singh visited the incident site and were briefed by officials. They were accompanied by Chief Secretary Arun Kumar Mehta.
A public notice was issued urging the general public to furnish any facts, statements, electronic evidence, etc. about the incident with the panel.
“Any person who desires to meet in person may appear before the said inquiry committee in person between 11 AM and 1 PM on January 5 in the office of Divisional Commissioner, Jammu, to furnish any statements/facts/evidence,” read the notice issued by Langar.
The stampede at the shrine occurred at 2.15 AM near a relatively narrow passage at gate number 3 outside the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine where devotees usually arrive round the clock after trekking for 13 km from the Katra base camp.
Shubam, 24 of Laxmi Nagar Delhi said the police and CRPF personnel are managing the yatra and are discouraging people from staying back at the cave shrine after performing ‘darshan’.
“We faced no issue and the yatra is going on smoothly,” Shubam, who performed the pilgrimage along with his four friends, said.
The National Green Tribunal has put a cap of 50,000 pilgrims per day and keeping in view the COVID-19 pandemic, the shrine board had allowed 35,000 pilgrims to proceed for yatra on 31st December 2021 and for 1st January 2022.
Besides enhancing the security arrangements, authorities have also deployed additional staff to ensure strict adherence to COVID-19 guidelines.
Over a dozen persons who were not carrying the mandatory COVID test report were asked to return this morning, an official manning one of the centres said.