Pamba River has strongly influenced the socio-cultural and religious life of Kerala. It is venerated and often called Southern Ganga. It is born in the Pulachimalai hill in the Western Ghats at a height of more than 1600 m, travels from east to west into the plains and drains into the Arabian sea at Thottapally near Alapuzha. The vast sandy banks of the river has born witness to the emergence and establishment of many cultural and religious centres. The Ayyappa temple situated on the Sabarimala hill by the Pamba is the most popular religious centre in Kerala for the Hindus. The pilgrims have to climb some 14 kilometres to reach the temple.
About two crores of pilgrims visit the holy shrine of Sabarimala through Pamba base, and more than one and half crores visit during the festive season from 15th Nov to 20th Jan, reaching Pamba base by road. There is a steady increase of 5 to 6% in the number of pilgrims.
The road travel is done through buses and taxis. Some even trek the route. The roads are narrow and in case of accidents, like the the stampede on January 14, 2011, during the peak of pilgrimage season, evacuation of victims for medical treatment was impossible. The road travel by such a large number of people cause serious pollution and environmental problems.
The suffering of the pilgrims prompted a Christian priest to come with a radical proposal to build a high speed rail line connecting Pamba base to Chengannur, a major town in Central Travancore. According to Corepiscopa M. K. Varghese, an elevated rail line along the Southern bank of the Pamba River can transport Sabarimala pilgrims from Chengannur to the Pamba base in less than an hour. The pillars of the elevated structures will be located mostly within riverbank, which, being mostly government land, does not require land acquisition. The total length of such a line will be about 70 kms with only two intermediate stations, of which one will be Aranmula. The rolling stock is identical to that used in the Delhi Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS) with 8 coaches. Each trains will carry 960 seated passengers. With such a train system, there will be no parking problem at Pamba base, and no degradation of the land caused by large scale by human movement.
According to Fr Varghese, even the construction work can be carried out without disturbing the peace and quiet of the forests by using equipment like the girder erection machine. The construction materials can be transported via barges, along the river, avoiding building a temporary road for construction.
Fr Varghese spoke to us at the Senior Citizens’ Forum, Kottayam recently of how he had always been moved by the plight of the pilgrims in making the road trip to Pamba, which motivated him to make the proposal. He travelled to Sabarimala seven times while studying the problem and found the elevated rail could resolve all the issues. Fr Varghese started investigating the issues related to this travel and within seven years prepared a project report on the rail line.
Fr. M K Varghese was born in August 1961 to middle class parents in Chengannur. After graduation from the Baselious College in Kottayam, he studied at the Orthodox theological seminary, Kottayam and was ordained as a deacon in 1982. His family consists of his wife and two children. He has worked in 20 Churches and is a social worker associated with hospitals and educational institutions. Corepiscopa is a religious title below the rank of bishop bestowed on the priests of the Syrian Christian Church after many years of service.
Because it is on an elevated platform on pillars, no trees will have to be cut. The time is spent on the road and the pollution caused by human defecation en route can be avoided. The large number of buses and motor vehicle now going to Pamba base can be totally curtailed.
The Pampa flows along agricultural land. By inviting tourists to spend time where they can spend nights in the village and understand more about the village life it can promote village tourism and create employment for more then 5000 people. The 16 Panchayats along the route are enthusiastic about the project after Fr Varghese met all the presidents of all these panchayats and discussed the implications of the project with them.
The scenic beauty all along the route is breath taking. “After the pilgrimage season, the line can be used for tourism purposes,” said Fr Varghese. “The elevated railway line passes close to the popular destinations like Aranmula, Cherukolpuzha and Perunthenaruvi. Another positive effect of the project is the possibility of the revival of the ancient trade centres such as Chengannur, Kozhenchery, Ranni, Vadasserikkara, Athikayam and Attathodu. Fr Varghese said the inability of evacuating the victims of the stampede on January 14, 2011, due to complete blockage of the road during the peak of pilgrimage season, prompted him to think about such a project.
Fr Varghese approached E Sreedharan, the Delhi Metro man to assess the viability of the project report and forward it to the Ministry of Railways, Government of India. Sreedharan had presented the project conceived by Fr M K Varghese Corepiscopa, to the railway ministry in April. “Sreedharan said it would be a double line project, with overhead traction and an advanced signalling system so that trains can run at three-minute intervals when needed.” “The rolling stock will be exactly the same as proposed for the Delhi Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS) with eight coaches. Each train can carry 960 persons,” said Sreedharan. The railway ministry recently approved had approved the project proposal and gave permission for the final location survey costing 1.88 crore in May. Based on the cost awarded rates of RRTS, such a system will cost Rs. 10,080 crores and with a completion period of 4 years, the completion cost will be Rs. 12,036 Crores. The ticket price can be fixed to make the project financially sustainable .
With the railway ministry giving green signal for the 75 km project’s final location survey, a hassle-free journey through the scenic forest could become a reality for the pilgrims in a few years.