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Sabarimala to Jharkhand: Why stampedes repeatedly occur in India

The temple stampede in Jharkhand on Monday laid bare the gaps in India’s crowd management skills that lead to frequent fatal crushes in the country, especially in religious places that attract large numbers of people.

analysis Updated: Aug 10, 2015 18:29 IST
Abhishek Saha
Abhishek Saha
Hindustan Times

The temple stampede in Jharkhand on Monday laid bare the gaps in India’s crowd management skills that lead to frequent fatal crushes in the country, especially in religious places that attract large numbers of people.

The question on everybody’s lips after the death of 11 people in the Durga temple barely a month after 29 people were crushed to death during a bathing festival in Andhra Pradesh was: Why is India prone to so many stampedes?

Experts say India is vulnerable to stampedes, especially at large religious gatherings, because of poor implementation of the National Disaster Management Authority’s (NDMA) crowd management guidelines.

“The NDMA has guidelines and it conducts mock drills to prepare authorities regarding stampedes and other disasters. Yet, somewhere the preparation lacks and stampedes keep happening again and again,” said former NDMA vice-chairman M Shashidhar Reddy.

Experts say stampedes occur because of any of the four reasons: People try to enter a restricted area at the same time in a rush, leading to jostling or suffocation; panic and chaos following accidents like the collapse of a bridge; natural disasters like heavy rains in a crowded place; and spreading rumours about an accident or disaster.

According to a 2013 study titled “Human stampedes during religious festivals: A comparative review of mass gathering emergencies in India”, published by the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction (IJDRR), religious gatherings and pilgrimages have been the venue for 79% of stampedes in India.

“In India, most of the large gatherings that happen are religious gatherings. And the locations where they take place have very little capacity to hold people and safety mechanisms are not in place. That’s why most stampedes are reported from such gatherings,” said Shibu K Mani, associate professor at the Jamsetji Tata Centre for Disaster Management in the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Administrators frequently ignore the NDMA’s guidelines on crowd management that include techniques such as deploying a snake-line approach, having alternative routes for releasing excessive crowd pressure and even refusing admission to VIP visitors if their presence disturbs crowd management.

“Firstly, there is an administrative failure to put in place an evacuation plan whenever a large gathering is hosted. Secondly, the behavioural aspect of the crowd which gathers and what kind of people it comprises,” Mani said.”Another reason is often the inaccessibility of proper emergency medical assistance.”

Experts say that larger temples or mosques like the Golden Temple in Amritsar and the Jama Masjid in Delhi, are better prepared to manage huge crowd.

National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data show 178 people died in stampedes in 2014 while 400 were crushed to death across the country in the previous year. In one of the biggest stampedes in recent year, 104 pilgrims died and another 50 were injured in a stampede near the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala in January 2011. The stampede, triggered by a jeep crashing into some pilgrims, was one of the worst tragedies at the shrine.

Eighteen people died and around 50 were injured in a stampede near the home of late Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, the spiritual leader of the Dawoodi Bohra community, in January last year. The stampede was the outcome of inadequate measures put in place to manage thousands of mourners and reports said police had underestimated the turnout.

"At present, we are at infant stage as far as disaster management mechanism is concerned," said Faisel Illiyas, assistant professor at the Institute of Land and Disaster Management in Kerala.

"The NDMA guidelines are there but do our authorities follow them? How many people the venue is capable of holding should be calculated and then publicised, so that the public gets to know about it," he asked.

Illiyas said better social discipline among visitors at any large gathering was important. "They should be told how to behave in case of any disaster."

The writer tweets as @saha_abhi1990

First Published: Aug 10, 2015 15:47 IST