At least 16 persons were killed and 46 injured in a stampede at a mass “yagya” of the Gayatri Parivar near Hari-Ki-Pauri on Tuesday.
The parivar was celebrating the birth centenary of its founder, Sriram Sharma Acharya, as the Gayatri Mahakumbh. “The celebrations have been called off and ‘Shanti Yagya' is being performed for the departed souls,” head of the institution Pranav Pandya said.
Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal was present when the stampede occurred.
About 50,000 people were participating in the “yagya” and the stampede seems to have been triggered by suffocation due to excessive smoke from over 1,000 havan kunds, Hariram, a participant from Gujarat, said.
“It appears that suffocation led to the stampede, but the exact cause will come out after an inquiry,” SDM Haridwar Harbir Singh said.
The dead include 14 women. Thirty-seven women and nine men were injured.
Ex gratia of Rs. 2 lakh
Uttarakhand Chief Minister B.C. Khanduri, who rushed to the spot, announced an ex gratia of Rs. 2 lakh for the kin of the dead and free treatment to the injured.
He cancelled all cultural programmes on the occasion of the State's Foundation Day on Wednesday. “Let us all observe the Foundation Day peacefully in honour of those killed in the ‘yagya',” he said.
Eyewitnesses said the stampede occurred at 10.30 a.m. when a few people tripped while those behind continued to push forward after tens of thousands devotees gathered to go to the fireplace at the ashram to make offerings. The devotees were climbing the stairs to cross a mini-bridge ahead of the venue for “Gayatri Mahayagya,” a survivor said.
The situation soon went out of control and people ran helter-skelter with several women and children falling.
Another version was that when a sea of humanity tried to enter the “yagyasthal” to offer “aahuti,” volunteers of the ashram allegedly resorted to lathi charge that created panic. People ran for safety falling on each other creating a stampede, police sources and eye- witnesses said.
Police sources said nearly two lakh people, including many from abroad had gathered for the ceremony, which is considered to be the biggest after the “Kumbh Mela.”
Police officials blamed the Shantikunj Ashram authorities for not involving the police and district administration in the management of the ceremony.
Ambulances rushed to the scene and paramedics shifted the injured to a makeshift 10-bed hospital set up by the organisers.
“People fell on each other and the resulting stampede killed two in front of me. I don't even know if my mother, who was shouting for help, is dead or alive,” a survivor said.
The condition of at least 10 persons was stated to be critical. Most of the victims belonged to Jhansi, Munger and Sultanpur of Uttar Pradesh.
BJP president Nitin Gadkari visited the site and met some of the injured.
Governor Margaret Alva has expressed grief.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed grief at the loss of lives and sanctioned Rs.1 lakh as relief for the kin of those killed.