On November 25, Avinash Garg, a 20-year-old from Muzaffarpur, Bihar, was a bundle of energy as he stood waiting for the gate to the sheltered auditorium, open from the sides, on the main campus of the Cochin University of Science and Technology (Cusat) in Kalamassery, near Kochi, to be thrown open. It was 6.30 p.m. The semi-circular auditorium, on the south-west side of the nearly 310-acre campus, slopes down from the road level and is located adjacent to the varsity canteen and the student amenities centre.
He was looking forward to a performance by the popular singer-song writer Nikhita Gandhi of Bollywood fame, marking Dhishna, the annual techno-fest of the School of Engineering (SoE). Final preparations were on inside the auditorium even as student volunteers were admitting peers in small batches. Those who had paid ₹1,200, about 400 students, were sent in first; the rest, about 700, were waiting outside, say students. At 6.45 p.m. joyful excitement turned to horror.
“As the laser lights blazed on stage amid an announcement that the programme was about to start, there was a sudden push from the crowd. The gate burst open under the pressure, and I fell. Before I knew what was happening, there was a pile of bodies over me,” recalled a grief-stricken Avinash, who studies BTech Computer Science at SoE.
He was fortunate to be pulled out alive with minor injuries. But not the four others, including three students of SoE, in what turned out to be Kerala’s worst-ever crowd crush on a campus. Athul Thampi, 23; Sara Thomas, 19; Ann Rifta Roy, 20, all students of SoE, and Albin Joseph, 23, a native of Mundoor, Palakkad, who came to watch the show with his friends in the university, were victims. Nearly 70 were injured, some grievously. Later, the post-mortem reports were to attribute the deaths to traumatic asphyxia as the primary cause of death.
Grief and trauma
As television channels flashed the news, a panic-stricken K.M Thampi, a farmer, was desperately trying to reach his son over the phone from their home at Kizhakombu in Koothattukulam town along the eastern suburbs of Kochi. “After a few calls went unanswered, someone attended the call to say that the phone was found lying at the venue. His mother had spoken to him only an hour before and he had assured her that he would call back,” said Athul’s father, his voice choking.
At Kinder Hospital in Pathadipalam, just a few kilometres from the campus, where some of the injured were rushed to after the tragedy, Sreeragh, sat shaking his head as if to shake off the horrors of the evening. He recollected scooping up a girl who was struggling to get up before being stomped to death. “Her face was covered with footmarks,” he said.
The victims were among the 2,500-odd students of SoE, who were excited to be part of the techno-fest, a marquee event on the campus, after the pandemic-induced break of three years.
“Since our last appearance in 2020, we have kept a solemn silence. Now, it is 2023. We rise from the ashes,” read the social media page of Dhishna. Little did they know that four lives were to be reduced to ashes.
A faculty member who worked closely with students organising the event said on condition of anonymity that the festival was not restricted to the SoE. Students from engineering colleges affiliated to the A.P.J Abdul Kalam Technological University and engineering colleges in Ernakulam were also part of the various technical and innovative events. The auditorium had a holding capacity of about 1,200 to 1,500 standing people, he said.
“The music show was a major highlight of the three-day fest and around 110 volunteers were deputed from 5 p.m. to manage the crowd. The attendees had to show either their identity cards or the QR-code of registration to be admitted inside,” he said, adding that since it was an open campus with no boundary wall, there was always an apprehension about outsiders entering the auditorium. Those living nearby often use the roads on the campus as a thoroughfare.
A note circulated among the participants of the fest prior to the musical night stated that students of the SoE would be the first to be allowed in. The entry of other students would start at 6.30 p.m., it said.
Inquiries and soul-searching
A final year student of the Division of Mechanical Engineering who was part of the organising committee said they were still in the dark about what triggered the surge. “Some say that the slight drizzle triggered it, while others attributed it to the last-minute chaos at the entry point. About 400 students of the SoE, who were wearing black T-shirts, had already gained entry. They had given ₹1, 200 each towards securing a place close to the stage. The entry was not restricted to students of SoE. It was open to students from other colleges who had registered for the techno-fest, and they were permitted to enter without any fee,” he said, emerging after giving his statement to the panel of university Syndicate members probing the incident.
Adwaith, a third year BTech Computer Science student, recalled that the situation went out of control as the volunteers could not manage the sudden push from behind. He was witness to the melee from the second row outside the 2.5-metre-wide steel gate. “Many fell from the top of the flight of stairs with 11 steps,” he said, breaking down mid-sentence.
Eyewitness accounts blamed the university authorities for under-anticipating the large turnout. A letter by the SoE Principal dated November 24, which emerged two days after the disaster, revealed that he had requested the Registrar to deploy “adequate security and police” for the event to avoid untoward incidents, as the public had access to the location.
However, the police did not get any such communication, going by the statement given by M.R. Ajith Kumar, Additional Director General of Police (Law and Order), immediately after the tragedy. Since then, a blame game has begun as the varsity authorities, left red-faced after the alleged leak of the letter to the Registrar, pointed fingers at the organising committee. “They failed to inform us that a musical night by a celebrity singer was planned on the second day of the fest,” said P.G. Sankaran, Vice-Chancellor.
Faulty design, a culprit
Ironically, for a prominent engineering varsity, the disastrous design fault of the auditorium has come in for a lot of criticism. It remains an indefensible folly for an organisation with a separate division for safety and fire engineering.
In his remarks, T.P. Madhusudanan, a senior consultant at the Thiruvananthapuram-based Habitat Technology Group, a non-profit working in the green building sector, called the auditorium a “rat trap”. He happened to pass by the venue just before the tragedy struck, after delivering a lecture on alternative technologies in building construction and disaster management measures as part of the techno-fest.
“The design of the space itself is faulty. There cannot be a flight of stairs immediately after the entrance door. It should come only after allocating adequate landing space. A single entry-exit is also dangerous in terms of disaster management. How can we call a space which has metal fence on cement foundation on all sides an open-air auditorium? It also has a roof structure over it,” he said. It seemed that many who tried to rush in were not aware of the steep flight of stairs and that may have accentuated the impact of the disaster.
Death of CET student
Despite its poor compliance, a government order issued following the death of a 21-year-old student at the College of Engineering Trivandrum (CET), in August 2015 is often quoted in times of such tragedies. Thasni Basheer, a third-year Civil Engineering student, was killed after being run over by a jeep on the college campus during Onam celebrations.
“Based on a directive by the Kerala High Court following the CET incident, the university had issued an order in November 2015 against staging music concerts involving musicians from outside the campus. It was not adhered to by the organising committee this time,” claimed Dr. Sankaran.
Jacquleen Joseph, chairperson, Centre for Disaster Management, Jamsetji Tata School of Disaster Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, pointed out that several risks, including structural failures and other mishaps, have to be comprehensively mitigated to ensure public safety in such mass gatherings.
“But this is often difficult to accomplish in a resource constrained context (trained human resource and financial resources), especially at an event being organised by students learning to coordinate such large events for the first time. Often, though faculty patrons and committees are constituted, they play a minimal administrative role, taking into consideration their heavy workloads and the fact that these events are often seen as student-led initiatives,” she said.
She said that apart from taking into account government policy and guidelines, simpler and comprehensive audits, checklists, and standard operating procedures should be internally developed and updated regularly with the active engagement of students. These safety processes then become part of the student-led initiative, “leading to the sensitisation and orientation of future responsible citizens,” she said.
The disaster has prompted the government to initiate remedial measures. “An expert panel will recommend guidelines on the precautions to be taken while organising programmes with large attendance on educational campuses,” said R. Bindu, Minister for Higher Education. A safety audit on the campus, counselling sessions for the injured and a revised standard operating procedure for holding such events as suggested by the government figure among the follow-up steps being initiated by the varsity in the wake of the disaster.
When the dust settled on the fateful day and he was calm enough to speak, Avinash rang his home back in Bihar. While reassuring his parents that he had escaped an accident on the campus with minor bruises, he made it a point to hide more than he revealed. He did not want his parents, living hundreds of kilometres away, to know that the accident their son was fortunate to survive had claimed four lives. That, he decided, could wait.