– Satchit Balsari, HSPH Kumbh Mela Team Leader
February 11, 2013
It’s 1:30am and we are now in Benaras. We delayed our morning departure to spend another day at the Kumbh.
Mauni Amavasya was not the uneventful day the organizers had hoped it would be. Officials say that 30 million people (one and a half times Bombay’s population) took a peaceful dip at the Sangam. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims lined Parade Road to watch the processions roll by – the Naga sadhus, the Shankaracharyas, and the mahants, from Hinduism’s various denominations, and from India’s far flung corners. There were people everywhere – on the pontoons leading up to the Sangam, on the pontoons bringing them back safely after they holy dip, on Triveni Road, and Jagdish Road and Mahavir Road and every road that intersected every other road in the Nagri, on the hill next to the Sangam, inside the Akharas and outside the Akharas, on Shastri Bridge that spanned the wide Ganga, on the roads that led to the Nagri, on the roads that led away from Allahabad, on the 6000 buses waiting to depart from the seven bus stations, in the Ganga, in the Yamuna, in the Sangam and besides the Sangam. And on a footbridge over platform 6 at the railway station. It was the world’s biggest fair. Everyone was invited. And everyone came.
The atmosphere was festive: the energy palpable, the excitement contagious, and the masses patient. Men, women, children, the elderly and the frail all headed to the Sangam. There was color everywhere: bright reds and greens and yellows and oranges. On the turbans, on the sarees, on the flags, on the walls. And there were songs: incessant, loud and mostly pious. And smells: of incense, and prasad and marigolds and humanity. And the millions walked to the Sangam with a purpose. They were resolute in step, but not hurried; they were carefree but cautious. They were happy. They were accommodating. They were joyous. The sight from 30 feet atop the watch tower at the Kumbh was one to behold:a dense, teeming mass of Snaanarthis (bathers), punctuated by billowing bright sarees drying in the wind. Bathers frolicked in the water. Commuters lounged where they could. Villagers tried to sell their cows for Godaan. The otherwise demure Indian homemakers stripped down to their petticoats to bathe in the river. The sadhus sat atop tractors and chariots and colorfully decked lorries. Commerce flourished. Sins perished.
It was indeed a beautiful day in Prayag. As it has always been for centuries when the Mela arrives at the Triveni Sangam. Except in 1954 – when a rogue elephant barreled into a dense crowd that had gathered to see their beloved Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The ghost of the resulting stampede has loomed over the Allahabad Kumbh ever since. No Mela adhikari, no Kumbh sevak, no politician, no government servant, no Allahabad nivasi wants another mishap at the Kumbh.
The sun was slipping behind the tent-tops. Everyone breathed a sigh of accomplishment, of satisfaction, and of relief. Another big bathing day had come and gone. And millions had been returned home safely. Almost.
The large notice board in the railway booking office compound in Sector 2 of the Kumbh Mela had 202 train options for people to choose from. Late last evening, when the Rajdhani arrived, thousands of eager commuters rushed up the sole footbridge from platform 1 to platform 6. Police tried to hold back the crowd. Some say a lathi (baton) may have been raised. No one really knows what happened, whose foot slipped first, who toppled next. But several hours later, when the last ambulance pulled by at SRN Hospital at 2:30am, 36 pilgrims were dead, over thirty injured. Three were in critical condition.
Two nights ago, a journalist from one of the world’s leading dailies was lamenting how hard it was to report on the Kumbh. That millions had gathered in India once again for a holy dip in the Ganga wasn’t new. Wasn’t captivating. Wasn’t interesting. The government’s worst nightmare had just come true: the Kumbh had suddenly become interesting.
“Horror at Kumbh” screamed the headlines in one of India’s largest dailies. And we, the HSPH Public Health team, shared the organizers’ disappointment, heart-break and dejection.
Thousands of people work for months on end to make the Kumbh Mela a success. The statistics are staggering, and yet, the Indian bureaucracy, sometimes fatalistic and often times laissez-faire – puts its muscle behind the Kumbh. The Kumbh Mela sees more resources, more planning, more implementation and more goodwill than any other large public project in India. It is tempting, very tempting, to therefore attribute the footbridge stampede to a freak but unfortunate accident that may scar the 2013 Mela forever. But to do so would be erroneous, for we believe that the footbridge accident is a symptom of a more pervasive malaise in the planning process, not unique to the Kumbh. The dismissive, overconfident, exclusive, hierarchical, rigid planning processes so rampant across institutions in the region, are as responsible for the foot-bridge stampede, as they are for the bottlenecks from the main avenues to the pontoon bridges, for hundreds that get traumatized every day running from pillar to post to search for their lost relatives at the Kumbh, for the thousands that get prescribed medications without so much as a cursory glance from their physician and for the oxygen tanks in the ambulances that can’t be unlocked without a key.
We will write more about these and related issues in the coming days.