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Uttarakhand tragedy: disaster preparedness at major pilgrimage sites

Thousands lost their lives in the recent Uttarakhand floods. Estimates vary — a little over a thousand says the government, 11,000 says UN. A report card. Neyaz Farooquee writes.

india Updated: Jul 14, 2013 02:09 IST
Neyaz Farooquee
Neyaz Farooquee
Hindustan Times
Kedarnath temple,Neyaz Farooquee,Rohit Jigyasu

Thousands lost their lives in the recent Uttarakhand floods. Estimates vary — a little over a thousand says the government, 11,000 says UN. Among those who died, many were pilgrims flocking to the Kedarnath temple and other religious sites in the region.

It is not the first time that India has faced a tragedy at a religious site. With a large number of devotees, spread across faiths, congregating at pilgrimage sites during peak seasons, these places become extremely vulnerable. Indian tragedies are social tragedies, says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan. He adds, “In India, places do not return to normal after disasters. They cascade into other disasters.”

Sometimes, the catastrophe is natural and at times, it is man made. In 2005, for instance, an avalanche buried two villages along the Amarnath route, killing more than 200 pilgrims. A stampede killed around 40 in Kumbh this year in Allahabad. Or more recently, last Sunday, blasts rocked Mahabodhi Temple in Gaya, fortunately causing no major casualties.

Such tragedies can certainly be contained, says Rohit Jigyasu, UNESCO Chair Professor at Japan’s Institute of Disaster Mitigation for Urban Cultural Heritage. Then, why do we fail repeatedly? “There is little collaboration between organisations leading disaster management and civic agencies. For example, there is no proper plan for evacuation or exit and understanding of how many people a site can accommodate.”

According to a CAG audit earlier this year, none of the major projects taken by National Disaster Management Agency — India’s apex body for disaster management — were completed, either due to improper planning or were abandoned.

Diagnosis starts at the primary level. “The least we can do is to learn to manage our crowds and act swiftly during disasters. We have failed to do that,” says Prabhakran V, who published his research on crowd safety in International Journal of Innovative Technology and Creative Engineering in 2011.

Kumbh Mela, Uttar Pradesh
Over the years in Allahabad, during the Kumbh festivals — Ardh and Maha Kumbh — that come every 6 and 12 years respectively, has seen a sea of humanity converging at the banks of river Ganga. Despite the claims of authorities, the crowds during the last three Kumbhs have only swelled. According to an official estimates, around five crore pilgrims were in the city on the ‘Mauni Amavasya’ day on February 10. Lack of coordination between the administration and the railways resulted in collapse of an overbridge full with pilgrims. A stampede that followed left around 40 dead and dozens injured. There were also reports of dozens dying in a stampede in other places in the tent township that had come up for the Kumbh.

“Warnings do work but only with better management. And this was found lacking both at the railway station where pilgrims died. Ultimately, it's the administration which has to be on its toes to manage things,” says social activist Parvez Rizvi.

The then divisional commissioner Devesh Chaturvedi openly blamed the death on the railways while the railways blamed the administration on its failure to stop people heading en masse towards the station.

All this happened in the midst of a disaster management team from the central government camping in the city and an army of constabulary and officials manning the Sangam area with anti-terror, anti-mine squads and spotters requisitioned from terror-struck areas.
— BK Singh

Amarnath Yatra, Jammu and Kashmir
In 1996 more than 100,000 people were caught in a sudden blizzard that hit Amarnath cave area. 242 pilgrims lost their lives due to exhaustion, freezing temperatures and starvation. While government claims that lessons were learnt, 2005 negated all claims. On February 22, 2005, in south Kashmir, entire Waltengunar village got buried under twin avalanches and nearly 200 died.

“We have become more vulnerable due to the unplanned construction,” said Shakeel Ramshoo, head of department, Geology and Geophysics at Kashmir university. The area from Pahalgam to Amarnath is a disaster in waiting. “The government has fixed a 15,000 ceiling for pilgrims but even that is high. Such huge numbers can create havoc for the environment,” he added.

According to officials, high intensity sustained rainfall or snowfall increases the likelihood of avalanches, cloudburst, and flash floods, especially in the upper reaches. The more vulnerable stretches are also important pilgrimage points like Panjtarni, Sheshnag, holy cave, MG Top.

The way out is an effective weather monitoring system. “We have come a long way since 1996,” said Director met department, Sonam Lotus. “We have nearly 30 automatic weather monitoring systems, we are getting radar weather monitoring system next year, so we have been giving fairly accurate weather warnings,” he added. — Toufiq Rashid

Mahabodhi Temple, Bihar
Nobody died in the serial bomb blasts that rocked Bodh Gaya last Sunday, fortunately. But the explosions did shatter the tranquillity of a town known for the Mahabodhi Temple, the foremost pilgrimage centre for the Buddhists.

What surprised everybody was that the blasts happened despite alerts from various agencies that the temple was a terror target. The latest one was from the Ministry of Home Affairs on July 3. Earlier, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) had alerted Bihar Police in June about the targets. “The Bodh Gaya temple was a long standing target and we had been reminding the state agencies about it. But our warnings were not taken seriously,” said a senior official of the IB.

Bodh Gaya drew around 8.73 lakh domestic and 2.28 lakh foreign tourists in 2012. “The impact of the blasts would be known only later, in the months of December-January when many important Buddhist prayers are performed,” said Navin Kumar, deputy GM of Bihar State Tourism Development Corporation.

There are 52 monasteries that cater to pilgrims. Over 150 hotels in and around the town cater to the rest of the tourists who arrive to be at the place where Gautam Buddha received enlightenment. Add to them hundreds of big and small shops and vendors. Although nobody died in the serial blasts, it blew the lid over security preparedenss of the pilgrim site.
— Dev Raj

Tirupati Temple, Andhra Pradesh
The richest shrine in the country also appears to be the safest for the pilgrims. The Tirumala temple, abode of Lord Venkateshwara has no official records of a major disaster in over three decades. The main reason the temple, with an average of over 65,000 visitors on a normal day and about one lakh during rush period of May to June, has not seen any major stampede is the massive, well-equipped queue complex. Vaikuntam I and II, as they are named, have 62 compartments where 300-500 pilgrims are accommodated during their wait to darshan.

“There is no reason for anxiety or any worry. Pilgrims waiting in the sarva-darshan are even provided with breakfast, lunch and dinner — everything for free,” says GVG Ashok Kumar, chief vigilance and security officer.

The golden temple is located at an elevation of 980 m above the sea level on the Seshachalam hill, officials say, safely from any natural calamity. Even the reservoir that supplies water to the temple town is about 10 km away.

In addition to the 1500 state and private guards, armed special police and a unit of Octopus is protecting the temple. The temple is also equipped with state-of-the art security systems. “There is a contingency plan drawn for every possible incident which details where personnel should be positioned and what exactly they should do in those situations,” said Kumar.

National Disaster Relief Force personnel were deployed during last year’s Brahmotsavams — the most spectacular event in Tirumala when pilgrim numbers swell. —Prasad Nichenametla

Sabarimala Temple, Kerala
Situated in the western ghat mountain ranges, the Sabarimala temple is considered the second largest seasonal pilgrimage after Mecca. More than 3.2 crore pilgrims visited the hill shrine last year during the peak festive season (the state population is 3.25 crore).

The last major tragedy happened in 2011 in which 110 devotees died in a stampede. Including the 2011 incident, the shrine has witnessed three major mishaps in the last 60 years — 65 pilgrims charred to death after a cracker unit caught fire in 1952 and in 1999, as many as 54 trampled to death when a pathway caved in.

The governments of the time announced enquiries but most of the reports have been forgotten. Key changes like crowd management have to be smoothened to avert another mishap. CCTVs could be helpful in crowd management. To ease the rush, religious leaders have demanded more ‘darshan’ days rather than limiting it to a season. Also, the virtual queue system which Kerala police had introduced two years back got a good response which could be emulated.

Since the temple is situated in the midst of a wildlife sanctuary, Periyar Tiger Reserve, space for the devotees coming to temple is limited and scope to expand the temple is limited. The temple area is ecologically fragile and is located on hill top surrounded by mountains and dense forests.

Most of the pilgrims are from neighbouring states Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
— Ramesh Babu

Ajmer Dargah, Rajasthan
In 2007, a bomb went off inside the Dargah complex killing three devotees and injuring many. Security was beefed up after the incident.

Though devotees flock to the Dargah throughout the year, it’s only during the annual Urs gatherings — when an estimated two to three lakh pilgrims throng the complex on the day — that the chances of accidents like stampede go up . “We have 2000-plus trained disaster management volunteers available at our call and those include doctors, engineers, and other trained technical members,” said Sunita Verma Assistant collector and magistrate Ajmer and In-charge of Disaster management Cell. During annual Urs at dargah a sufficient number of police and sector magistrates are deployed for the smooth movement of the crowd to the sanctorum, said Vaibhav Galaria, collector, Ajmer. “We do not let the dargah premises get over crowded by erecting four to five barricades en-route dargah. If at any given point of time it appears that the Dargah is getting crowded we stop the entry of pilgrims inside the Dargah by lowering the barriers unless ascertaining that sufficient numbers of people have left the Dargah,” he added.

However, locals differ. They say that the area is vulnerable to accidents like fire. Also, open electric wires hanging in the area add to the danger.
— Zakir Hussain

Kashi and Sankatmochan temple, Uttar pradesh
Though there has been no major stampede or other accidents at the two famous temples, the Sankatmochan has been a target of a twin terror strike in 2006, that killed 20 people.

Kashi Vishwanath temple has installed CCTVs for surveillance but during festive rush, it employs bomb disposal squads, metal detectors, dog squads and paramilitary personnel inside the temple complex as a precautionary measure. Security personnel are also deployed on all routes through which Kanwariyas pass.

Apart from local police, rapid action force, PAC and personnel of local intelligence units are deployed outside the temple complex to manage the movement of crowd. For the first auspicious Monday falling on July 29 of the coming Shrawan month, special arrangements have been made to prevent any untoward situation. For that, a multi-lingual public address system would be installed to make important announcements for devotees, say authorities.

Due to security threat, cameras, mobile phones and other belongings are not allowed inside both the temple complexes.
— Pawan Dixit

Shirdi sai baba temple, Maharashtra
The daily footfall at the shrine is nearly 70,000, which goes up to 3.5 lakh on peak and important festival days.

The state authorities identify stampede and terror strike as two major potential disasters. The shrine trust says it has ensured that 25,000 devotees can be accommodated in the complex at any given time. Steel railings has been erected to ensure discipline in queues and proper seating arrangements are made to make waiting comfortable and orderly.

The security mechanism installed on the campus has scanners to detect explosives like RDX and round the clock surveillance is ensured through through CCTV network, including night vision camera.

Additionally, the trust has raised the height of walls and constructed watch towers in view of the terror threats. A bullet proof glass on one side of the idol has also been installed to ensure seamless darshan.

Fortunately, no major untoward incident has happened at the temple so far. The administration attributes this to their preparedness, apart from ‘blessings of Baba’.
— Surendra Gangan

Kamakhya temple, Assam
The temple has been on the hitlist of several terror groups mainly because it attracts hundreds of pilgrims everyday and a strike could cause damage to human lives. Keeping in mind such threats, security steps such as installation of CCTVs in the entire temple complex and the access routes and deployment of police/paramilitary personnel were taken up five years ago.

Regarding natural disasters, the preparations, according to Assam State Disaster Management Authority officials, are in keeping with earthquake-related drills elsewhere. Assam falls in zone of quake-prone areas — category 5, which is considered reasonably dangerous.

A problem, though, in recent years is the rate of construction on the slopes of the hill. Concrete houses are inching up the hill from the base all around. The local development authority has issued some restrictions to offset landslips owing to the scraping of the slopes.

Kamakhya has been previously more of a law and order issue than one related to disaster. Nilachal hill, on which Kamakhya is perched, is pretty stable — more stable than Himalayas, and as an isolated hill on the southern bank of Brahmaputra, it poses no ecological threat as such.
— Rahul Karmakar

First Published: Jul 14, 2013 00:11 IST