Pilgrims in peril

<b>THE SUNDAY STORY</b> Many of the world's deadliest stampedes, such as the Ratnangarh temple incident, occur in India. Yet, few lessons have been learnt since the 1954 Allahabad stampede.

October 20, 2013 01:54 am | Updated November 16, 2021 07:46 pm IST

The 1954 Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad was a landmark event, being the first Kumbh after India’s independence. However, it is today remembered for one of the worst stampedes in India’s history. Over 800 persons were trampled to death or were drowned on Mauni Amavasya, the main bathing day.

The Justice Kamala Kant Verma committee, set up to probe the incident, gave a list of recommendations that became the basis for better management in future Kumbh melas.

Over the decades, the Kumbh has grown into a colossus — in area, duration, money and footfall. An estimated 100 million devotees attended the 2013 Kumbh over 55 days, a city of tents spread over 4,000 acres or roughly the size of 3,000 football fields.

No doubt, the Kumbh is an organisational feat, stumping even western urban planners and experts. It comes together after months of planning, construction and (re)adjustment (to the Ganga’s course), with its own set of administrators, on the lines of a ‘district.’

However, the management of the big crowds, especially on the main bathing days, remains the biggest challenge, the requirement being a smooth synchronisation of complex traffic plans, heavy police presence and close co-ordination by multiple agencies. Even a tiny slipup, and the results can be disastrous.

Stampede at Allahabad

The stampede at Allahabad Junction this Kumbh on Mauni Amavasya is a case for reference. Forty lives were lost. Even as a judicial probe is on, ground reports indicate several triggers: lathi-charge by the police, a Railway announcement of a change in platform, announcements on the public address system and an unprecedented crowd of over three crore on a single day.

Amid the elaborate arrangements, the incident might seem like a freak. Moreover, it occurred outside the mela premises. But it was a symptom of pervasive administrative loopholes and a lack of inter-departmental coordination.

In fact, a series of mistakes had already been committed at several points on the roads leading up to the station. The rude shock, in a way, helped to turn attention towards them.

The Kumbh premises had elaborate crowd control mechanisms, with complex traffic control plans, public address systems, heavy security, jigsaw enclosures to regulate incoming traffic at checkpoints and lost-and-found enclosures. But these crowd control techniques didn’t quite make it to the station, said a team of researchers from the Harvard University who camped at the Mela. They hinted that more “cross disciplinary conversations” would have been beneficial, particularly in detecting choke points.

Despite an Allahabad High Court ban and a government advisory, free movement of VIP vehicles was allowed throughout the mela and also on the fateful day. To compare, many leading politicians, including Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, had visited the 1954 Kumbh. But were the lessons of 1954 been learnt and institutionalised? “Not really,” a senior official, who has managed the Mela for over 30 years said. “Forget about the Justice Verma recommendations, they don’t even look at the last prativedan [official report],” he said, requesting anonymity.

After the conclusion of each Kumbh, the departments and officials concerned submit their experience reports for future reference. “The 2001 Kumbh report came only by 2012. So where’s the scope for learning,” the official asks.

Devesh Chaturvedi, the senior most official in-charge of Kumbh 2013, points out three important lessons for successful crowd management: strictly maintaining one-way paths; a proper public address system to keep the public assured and motivated; and a police force trained to take quick action.

“If a person falls in a crowd, the police should be able to pick the person up within 3-5 seconds to prevent any serial falling,” Mr. Chaturvedi says. Based on the experience at managing the annual magh melas, maintaining wider roads paves the way for a better circulating area.

Another aspect that has been common to Kumbh stampedes is putting the ultimate “blame” on the “crowd.” In 1954, the blame fell on the “pilgrims’ fatalism” and uncritical, obsequious reverence to holy men... exonerating the government of any responsibility,” Australian scholar and author of Pilgrimage and Power Kama Maclean points out in a paper.

The “heavy rush” of pilgrims explanation hides the difficulties the pilgrims had on their way from the mela. Hungry, thirsty and tired after walking 10 km, they were desperate to reach home.

Their anxiety was compounded by railway officials using public address systems to announce names and timings of special trains departing from the Junction. The Mela administration, too, was asking them to move towards the station. The streets were already choked with teeming numbers and the sudden flow of tractor trolleys. The police were overwhelmed.

Observers suggest that building rest houses en route to the exit points would better help manage the crowd.

Seasoned officials also opine that developing newer stations on different routes would help to take the load off the main junction.

“This time, there was too much focus on the Sangam area. We ignored the exit points. The crowd management in 2001 was much better,” admits the official.

The next Kumbh is expected to be bigger. But will if be better managed? Needless to say, with even larger crowds, there should be no room for error.

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