In the larger scheme of things, the death of pilgrims in a stampede doesn't count for much. Clearly, if it did, the latest tragedy in Haridwar that has, on last count, claimed 20 lives, would have been avoided. The fatalism in-built with such regular deaths — there have been some 1,000 fatalities in stampedes in religious places across India over the last decade — sidesteps the fact that authorities are grossly negligent and unprepared, leaving much of the necessary aspect of crowd control to fate. Doling out compensation and words of condolence are not good enough. On Tuesday, the authorities were aware that nearly 40,000 pilgrims had gathered at the Shantikunj Ashram in Haridwar and were to walk their way to the banks of the Ganga as part of the five-day centenary celebrations of the founder of a religious sect. It doesn't take an expert in disaster management to figure out that with the amenities and crowd control mechanisms in place, a stampede and the accompanying horror were more likely to take place than not.
One aspect of such tragedies that is usually overlooked — because it is so obvious — is the fact that the crowds themselves, like most congregations in India, have little sense of order and safety. The literal 'herd mentality' of crowds in public spaces has hardly ever been discouraged and is palmed off as something intrinsic to our behaviour whether at kumbhs or in buses. This makes it even more necessary for order to be imposed and for authorities to see that norms such as entry in batches, movement in a uniform direction, etc are not flouted.
It may sound as if we have the benefit of hindsight to shake our heads in consternation. But the fact of the matter is that India has had enough occasions to be serious about avoiding such tragedies. In January, 104 pilgrims at Sabarimala in Kerala were crushed to death. Regular 'accident sites' in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra read like a litany of spots on a pilgrimage tour. Even as an inquiry is underway and a blame game between the ashram authorities and those of law and order shamefully continue, the cause of deaths is obvious to all and sundry: not having any proper arrangements for crowds. Let there be a limit to pilgrims if the authorities are unable to provide safety measures. Because right now, the correlation between stampede deaths and pilgrimages remains perilously and unambiguously high.