Safety manual for Sabarimala, submitted in 2011, is yet to become functional

Surging crowds, restless elephants lined up under a blazing sun, the deafening sound of firecrackers mingling with the peal of bells the amplified music of temple instruments, people jostling to enter a narrow avenue — a religious festival in Kerala is a heady assortment of sights, sounds, and sensations that would spell chaos and assail any normal human being.

Disaster management experts highlight the need for effective crowd management and risk reduction strategies to prevent human stampedes at religious festivals. They feel that the death of over 100 pilgrims in a stampede at the Ratangarh temple in MP earlier this month should provide a wake-up call to the administration.

The government, however, has adopted ad hoc measures despite two stampedes at Sabarimala that claimed 161 lives. A detailed safety manual prepared for Sabarimala by the Institute of Land and Disaster Management (ILDM) and submitted to the government in 2011 is yet to become functional.

SOP required

Experts maintain that government apathy and negligence had resulted in violation of rules and laxity in conforming to standards at places of worship where pilgrims gather in large numbers. They stress the need for a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to minimise casualties in the event of a stampede.

“SOPs have to be location-specific, taking local conditions and requirements into consideration. Based on extensive data collection, they will need to have maps, escape routes and a checklist of whom to call and what to arrange in an emergency,” says K.G. Thara, Head, Disaster Management Centre, ILDM, who prepared the safety manual for Sabarimala.

“Apart from stampedes, disaster risk reduction strategies for major temples should also factor in forest fires, landslips, and even acts of terror,” she adds.

According to a study carried out by Faisel T. Illiyas, Assistant Professor, ILDM, and others, risk management strategies to tackle stampedes during religious festivals are quite inadequate and have failed consistently in India because of the large crowds and the widening spread of the venues. The paper, published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, observes that the vulnerability of religious gatherings is aggravated by remote venues or hazard-prone setting, poor facilities, and lack of basic infrastructure.

Based on the risk factors identified from the study of 34 human stampedes during temple festivals in India from 1954 to 2012, the authors have proposed a basic framework covering hazard identification and mitigation measures for stampede risk reduction. ILDM Director Keshav Mohan, a co-author of the paper, said the institute was preparing risk reduction guidelines to be submitted to the State government.

Muralee Thummarukudy, Head, Disaster Risk Reduction, UN Environment Programme, feels that risk reduction to prevent stampedes should be based on a scientific assessment of the carrying capacity of the entire pilgrimage process. “If officials have advance information on how many pilgrims are to be expected in a season, they can plan better ,” he said

He expressed surprise that neither the Kerala Police nor the Fire and Rescue Services had a helicopter for emergency operations. “Using modern technology and good management principles, we can make pilgrimages a safe, secure, and culturally enriching experience.”

  • ILDM preparing risk reduction guidelines

  • ‘Modern technology, good management principles vital to avert disasters’

  • Safety manual for Sabarimala, submitted in 2011, is yet to become functional