Poor crowd management and disregard for logistics is generally responsible for disasters at religious places. Tuesday’s incident in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh, has been no exception. The district administration predictably blamed the ‘inept’ crowds and the police. Experts from a human resource development institute had been deployed to train officers, it would seem. But how could deputing experts at a time when devotees had already gathered for the holy dip in the Godavari have helped is a question that only the administration can answer. There is also a report that the authorities did not anticipate such a huge crowd. Stampedes in such situations occur ‘even before anyone realises anything’, and this is what, by official admission, happened in Rajahmundry.
Apart from bad crowd management, it is Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu’s visit to the spot which led to alterations in the security arrangements. This is another problem the administrations face. Nobody can deny Mr Naidu the right to take a holy dip, but since he is chief minister, his security details could have been worked out separately. But unfortunately, this is not what happened. The gates to the ghats were opened once Mr Naidu left. Disaster struck before anyone could react, quite reminiscent of the 2011 Sabarimala tragedy.
State governments respond mostly after a disaster has happened, as in the case of Datia, Madhya Pradesh, in 2013. More than 20 officials had been suspended after the temple tragedy and a judicial enquiry was ordered, though its report is not in the public domain so far. At the same spot in Datia, more than 50 people had been washed away by a river tide in 2006 and the state government then erected a bridge, on which the stampede took place seven years later. But following this, certain factors responsible for such tragedies came to light, like people jostling to see the deity; collapses in temporarily erected structures; rumours of fire or terror attacks; or the propensity of people to make a quick exit. On each of these counts there is a need for tight security structures because a disciplined crowd behaviour is still an alien notion in India. If the State cannot tackle such a problem, it should think of ways of restricting people’s access to holy places. After all, sustenance for the soul means little if there is a danger to the person’s safety in the here and now.