Soon after the stampede at the Allahabad railway station killed 36 people on Sunday, railway minister Pawan Kumar Bansal admitted that the arrangements were not adequate for the huge number of devotees who came to board their trains after visiting the Maha Kumbh Mela site on the banks of the Ganga.
A few hours later, Uttar Pradesh urban development minister Azam Khan resigned as the in-charge of the mela organising committee. Even though the two have accepted their administrations’ responsibility in the incident and the state government has ordered an inquiry, that old question crops up again: why were the people in-charge careless even when they knew that the Maha Kumbh Mela was going to be a supersize affair? Any religious congregation in India is a large affair and it was known that the Maha Kumbh Mela, which comes round only once every 144 years, would attract 100 million bathers across its 55 days. But even then our very experienced public administrators were taken by surprise — or should we say, caught napping — when more than expected people turned up at the Allahabad station on Sunday.
If the administration failed in its responsibility, the police deployed at the station compounded that mistake by suddenly resorting to lathi-charge when possibly all they needed to do was to manage the crowd with some calmness. This is not to say that managing such large (and sometimes unruly) crowds is an easy task, especially for our overworked and under-prepared policemen. But then that is what planning is all about, isn’t it?
Moreover, why were there so many people there at one station at the same time? Why weren’t other nearby stations utilised to distribute the passenger load? What is absolutely appalling and shows how shortsighted are our public authorities, ambulances could not even get to the station for two hours to evacuate the injured to hospital or retrieve the bodies because probably there was no one to coordinate the efforts. Stampedes are not uncommon in India.
We have had similar tragedies in the Kumbh Mela twice: 1954 (1,000 people died) and 1986; the 2012 stampede in Jharkhand when thousands of people arrived to take part in Saint Thakur Anukul Chand’s 125th birth anniversary celebrations at the ashram; the 2012 stampede in Mathura; 1999 and 2011 Sabarimala stampedes, the 2008 Naina Devi temple stampede to name a few.
Stampedes happen due to combination of factors: facilities are often far below capacity, bad crowd management and the lack of seamless coordination among authorities. In India, this combination keeps repeating with deadly consequences all too often. This is because lessons are never learnt and incidents just end up being statistics in official timelines.