It is 10.30 am on Tuesday (July 23) as the Madras high court bell is rung to commence proceedings for the day. The court is full and there is a rush of junior advocates to catch the attention of the learned judge, for a 'mention'. The judge is curious as to why there is such a rush to make a mention.
The first of them is by a lady junior, "Mi Lord, as my senior has rushed for a darshan of Lord Athi Varadar today, I would like your Lordship to adjourn item 14, by a day or two." Then followed a series of similar mentions. The judge is told that till July 23, Lord would be in reclining posture and from July 24 instant, he would be in standing one. So, no one wants to miss having darshan of the Lord, once in 40 years, in both postures. The court empties in a quick while, with an obliging judge. This scene of absenteeism can be replicated in schools, colleges and offices too.
The Athi Varadar darshan has become a phenomenon. Social media is full of forwards and selfies. It has become an iconic event of national and international recognition, with many an NRI making a beeline to Kanchi. Print and electronic media too is full of stories, including those who died from exhaustion and the 'special darshan' granted to seedy characters facing diabolical criminal charges. Athigiri Varadar is upon us and in a big way. It seems as though if you have not managed a visit, you are not a VIP or better still VVIP networking is happening at break neck speed in Tamil Nadu, notorious for its VIP culture, has seen it reach the pinnacle or the nadir, as you may choose to see.
Why this prelude? The footfall at Vasantha Mandapam has been humongous. It has caught the state administration and police veritably napping. So much so, that the collector of Kancheepuram has issued a public appeal to 'infirm, children, elderly, pregnant' to refrain from visiting the shrine. Strange and shameful, at the same time. Instead of welcoming the devotees in large numbers, particularly the segment that is alluded to, the state is asking them not to come. Is it the proud Tamil heritage?
There cannot be a better illustration to what has gone wrong. Planning by the administration. It is evident that they have been caught off guard. They are blaming us for recording higher footfalls than Tirupati on a given day. They are even exploring the possibility of shifting the Murthi to a different mandapam inside the Kanchi Varadar temple. Questions have been raised in the TN Assembly and the Chief Minister has responded to them himself.
It is obvious that the state and police administrations have been unprepared, for a once-in-a generation religious occurrence of its genre.
Athigiri Varadar story is imbued with mysteries, twists and turns. It is an unending debate among the religious scholars. It happened before in 1979, but without the fanfare, huge, massive and adulatory following that we are now witness to. The administration did not count on this changed environment. They have missed a trick and much more.
Firstly, there has been total lack of anticipation. They appear to have not provided for logistics support, in accord with the footfall. That is a major flaw. In any event of such a kind, the least that the administration ought to have done is 'to anticipate the possible, impossible, probable and improbable, the whole works', as in management lessons taught to beginners.
There is the queuing theory and scenario management et al, which are mandatory compliances to 'meet any contingency' as management guru Steven Covey puts it.
What did our men and women in administrative echelons do? Little or nothing of the professional kind. They simply provided police support, built barricades and turnstiles, and bamboo corridors for movement of the queue. Of course, they thought up and provided for VIP and VVIP entrances. Unfortunately, what they did not bargain for was the extent of religious fervour that would be unleashed and there could be an 'unmanageable surge' as they put it. Unmanageable, because they failed to anticipate and plan for it. There was no blueprint put in place to anticipate and 'meet any contingency'. The result has been chaos and deaths too in suffocation, and tiring out from long hours of standing, over 6 to 8 hours on occasions.
This apart, one is astounded that the state administration did not see the commercial potential in such a big occasion. They miserably failed to gauge the public outpouring of religiosity or cultural affinity, to the rich Tamil heritage.
If only, they had 'anticipated' and planned for the occasion, they could have hit upon a huge commercial bonanza for Kancheepuram. The administration could /should have marketed Tamil Nadu as a major hotspot for religious or cultural tourism. They could/ should have made films and documentaries and with Kollywood at the beck and call of our politicos, the commissioning would have been child's play. The shows could have been played all across India, and abroad, welcoming one and all.
The infrastructure in Kancheepuram could have been updated for the occasion. Tamilian culture and cuisines could have been made available even in private stalls or on franchise. Temporary accommodations could have been built as there was a keenness and eagerness among the devotees to not only pray to Varadar but visit many a shrine, in and around the temple city. There could have been tie ups to provide transportation or temple hops for the devoted; sponsorship sought for enhanced services.
The opportunities were endless. The 48 days on offer, including from the day the Murthi was brought up from the temple tank to the day the deity would be immersed into his abode for the next 40 years till 2059, were available on a platter, for commercial exploitation by the secular state. Nothing, just nothing of the kind happened, simply because the administration had no vision or farsightedness.
Uttar Pradesh made a killing in finances and infrastructure during the recent Kumbh Mela. Well, no matter one may complain that BJP had an agenda to pursue Hindutva and market it big, the occasion was used to make Prayagraj shine. And the built infrastructure shall remain for decades in use.
The AIADMK government has the ears of the Modi 2.0. BJP and AIADMK were poll allies. The bonhomie continues notwithstanding the inability of the alliance to crack the Tamil voter's heart and mind. But TN government could have tapped into the glorious opportunity on offer, to rope in the Central government as a willing ally in marketing Athigiri Varadar and the 48 day darshan as a god given tourist destination. The state of TN missed the bus, like many devotees now trying to reach Kancheepuram as the transport on offer is nowhere near need based.
Athi Varadar has made it big, in name and fame. It is not the implementation of ground rules that have failed. It is planning that has failed us. Planning can fail. But failing to plan? That is a colossal failure.
(Author is a practising advocate in the Madras High Court)...