Crushed by the crowd

Print edition : February 25, 2005

At the Mandhardevi temple at Wai, victims of the stampede on January 25. - AFP

The stampede and fire at the Mandhardevi temple in Maharashtra, in which some 300 people died, provides an occasion to look at the safety measures at India's many pilgrim centres.

"I couldn't see anything except the head of the person in front of me but all of a sudden there was shouting and the crowd started pushing. I resisted but it was like a powerful wave. The ground was slippery and people started falling. I fell and people fell on me... the air went out of me in one shot. I thought my chest would be crushed. I could not breathe and thought I would die. AlI I wanted to do was place my offering before the Devi. That's what all of us wanted and this is what we got."

- Nababai, a Wai stampede survivor.

THE most tragic fact about the stampede at the Mandhardevi temple at Wai in Maharashtra's Satara district on January 25 was that it was at once avoidable and inevitable. For the three-lakh devotees nothing mattered - not the steepness of the climb to the temple, the narrow entrance, or the small size of the temple compound. They were many more than the usual number for the doubly auspicious full moon day because it was a Tuesday, a rare combination. By the time the police officer in charge realised, close to noon and the auspicious hour, that the sea of humanity was swelling fast and asked for more policemen it was too late. Thirty men arrived but the situation had gone out of control.

In the space of a couple of hours an estimated 300 people died and property worth lakhs was burnt. Instead of a line of enthusiastic devotees winding their way up the hill, all that was visible was a giant head of fire. Rescue teams that arrived from Pune, 200 km away, could see the fire from miles afar but it took them four hours to negotiate the 12-km ghat road to reach the site atop a 1,200-metre-high hill. There they were faced with treacherously slippery steps, burning stalls, mangled bodies and the prospect of an occasional gas cylinder bursting.

Doctors at the rural and mission hospitals in Wai said that judging by the expression on the faces of most of the dead persons, death seemed to have been instantaneous. It was an important indicator for the investigators as it showed the rapidity with which things happened.

The State government's response was to announce cash aid to the survivors and to set up a judicial inquiry into the causes of the tragedy. In the blame game that followed, everything, from the death toll to the possible cause, came under dispute. The authorities say 251 people died - 157 women, 88 men, five boys and a girl - while the local people say the toll is much higher and that the bereaved took away bodies to avoid paperwork with the authorities.

Eyewitness accounts of the tragedy vary. The most plausible sequence of events suggests that some devotees slipped on a mix of water from broken coconuts and blood from sacrificed goats, and that triggered panic and a stampede. Packed beyond capacity in a compound, people struggled to find a way out and surged towards the two openings of the compound, one of which had been earmarked for entry and the other for exit. The 30 or so policemen on duty inside were powerless to do anything.

A fire rages in the stalls near the temple.-RAHUL DESHPANDE/AP

What happened next is not clear. The fire that started has been attributed to an electric pole that fell and sent shock waves through the coconut water, adding to the panic. Another version is that as word spread of possible deaths, angry people burnt some shops on the road. As the fire spread, gas cylinders started exploding - 25 were counted in the space of two hours. Doctors confirmed that there were no deaths from the fire or the explosions. All the deaths were caused by suffocation.

Reconstructing the sequence of events will certainly assist the investigation, but even a cursory survey exposes many inadequacies. The Mandhardevi temple is atop a hill and is reached after a steep climb that culminates in narrow steps. A narrow gateway opens out into a compound large enough to accommodate about 250 people. On this occasion there were reportedly close to a thousand devotees inside. There are two access points to the temple and for the occasion it was decided to use one as an entry and the other as an exit. This attempt at crowd control came to nought when the crowd stampeded.

The Shakambhari Paush Purnima is an annual event and attracts thousands of devotees, many of them from the farming community eager to pay obeisance to the goddess for the good harvest. Devotees first break coconuts at the Mangirbaba temple near the entrance to the main temple, sacrifice goats, offer oil at the deepmal and dance holding aloft Goddess Kalubai's idol.

Despite this being the time-honoured tradition, no attempt has been made to cordon off space for the breaking of coconuts. Blood from the sacrificial goats flows freely. The sacrificed animal has to be cooked and eaten immediately but no special spot has been marked for this and people camp anywhere, setting up stoves and fires. The place also lacks accommodation or conveniences for those who have come for the 15-day festival.

Basic precautions were not followed and this magnified the extent of the tragedy. If fewer people had been permitted at a time into the compound, the likelihood of a stampede would have been reduced. The availability of a public address system could have restored order faster and the panic could have been quelled. If there had been a watchtower, the authorities would have been able to anticipate and control the problem.

Furthermore, despite knowing that the day was an extra special one, there were only 300 policemen for a gathering of three lakh. There was not even one fire tender or ambulance. At least 300 makeshift stalls had come up on the hillside, selling pooja materials and serving snacks. How were these unlicensed shops allowed to use gas cylinders?

Said an official of the local administration: "Our hands are tied when it comes to religious matters. It is so difficult to make suggestions, leave alone enforce precautions, even of basic safety, when it comes to religious fairs. If the S.P. [Superintendent of Police] insists on limiting the numbers who enter a small area then people complain that we are interfering with their worship. If we try to clear the stalls on the road, the stall owners say their livelihood is being taken away. What are the alternatives? We are forced to stand back and wish for the best."

THE Kumbh Melas at Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh and Haridwar in Uttaranchal may offer him quite a few lessons in crowd management. Allahabad is currently hosting the month-long Magh Mela (January 14-February 14). Over 25 lakh people gathered at the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna on January 14; around 80 lakh are expected to take a dip in the sangam on Febuary 8, Mauni Amavasya.

At the Kumbh Mela at Trimbakeshwar near Nashik in Maharashtra on August 27, 2003, pilgrims fall as they try to break through barricades during the "Shahi Snan" (grand bath).-ROY MADHUR/REUTERS

Crowd management is not a worry for B.S. Ojha, Kumbh Mela officer in Allahabad. Huge crowds gather now and then on the banks of the Ganga for a holy dip but Ojha claims that the city has never witnessed a stampede. "This has been made possible by the scientific crowd management adopted by the administration. We constantly keep an eye on the movement of the crowd. If we see crowd pressure increasing on a particular route, we divert people to another route," said Ojha. "Besides, there are clear incoming and outgoing routes, which are far away from one another, to avoid stampedes." A well-managed public address system advises people on the route they should take to go in or come out and there are enough police personnel to guide the crowd.

Over three crore people gathered in Allahabad for over a month during the Purna Kumbh in 2001, to take a holy dip in the Ganga. It passed without incident even on the important bathing days when around 80 lakh people gathered on a single day for a holy dip. In Haridwar, too, barring 1986, when more than 50 people died in a stampede, there has been no untoward incident during the Purna or Ardh Kumbh Melas. Incidently, the last time there was a stampede at a Kumbh Mela was in 2003 in Nashik in Maharashtra. More than 40 people died in it.

The secret to successful crowd management lies in proper assessment of the crowd pressure, chalking out of entry and exit routes, round-the-clock vigil on crowd movement on important bathing days using cameras mounted on watchtowers, deployment of adequate numbers of the police forces, and an alert management capable of reacting quickly at the first sign of trouble.

Said Ojha: "Police and paramilitary forces are deployed at every nook and corner to control the crowd. Divers are on standby and so are water police personnel who keep an eye on people in the river."

A strict vigil on crowd behaviour ensures that nothing untoward happens. Said Allahabad District Magistrate Mahabir Yadav, who is in charge of the overall administration of the sprawling mela ground: "There are 10 police stations and 24 police chowkis only for the mela ground, besides the Rapid Action Force (RAF) and the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) to manage the crowd. Administrative officials camp there round-the-clock on important bathing days." Cameras mounted on three watchtowers constantly scan the ground for any unusual crowd behaviour.

The supervision is much the same in Haridwar too. There is a proper traffic plan, both for vehicles and for pedestrians, on important bathing days and it is adhered to strictly even if the crowd is not as big as expected, according to Navin Chandra Sharma, mela officer in Haridwar. "At times this exposes us to ridicule that there are more policemen than pilgrims, as happened during the ardh Kumbh in February-May last year, but we allow nothing to disturb our traffic plan," said Sharma. Besides, only a specific number of pilgrims are allowed into the river at any given time. "The rest are made to walk around barricades in order to slow down their approach to the river," said Sharma.

ONE of the most sophisticated systems of queue regulation and crowd management in temples is the one at the hill temple of Venkateswara at Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh. But that has not allayed fears about the safety of pilgrims in the event of a situation arising out of, say, a fire from a short-circuit. At any given time there are around 3,000 people in queues, besides around 50,000 waiting in the massive complexes constructed outside the temple.

The semi-circular queue complex for pilgrims at the Venkateswara temple in Tirumala.-CH.K.V. POORNACHANDRA KUMAR

The queue-complexes are divided into spacious and airy compartments with seating arrangements and closed-circuit television, which telecast the rituals going on inside the temple. The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) has also introduced the computer bar-coded wristband called `Sudarshanam token', which indicates the time of darshan for each pilgrim. This, besides easing the congestion at the temple, gives the pilgrims the opportunity to visit other nearby temples and places of tourist interest instead of waiting endlessly in the queue.

To handle the crowds on special days such as New Year's Day and annual festivals, when more than a lakh people congregate, the TTD initiated land acquisition proceedings and evicted all the residents, shopkeepers and hawkers around the temple after a protracted legal battle. The TTD, with a Rs.600-crore annual budget, rehabilitated all the displaced persons at the foothills at an enormous expenditure.

The safety of pilgrims, particularly inside the temple, remains a concern considering the fact that entry and exit are through one passage, the `Mahadwaram', the main door. But on the question of making modifications to the main structure the TTD's hands are tied. The Agama Sastras, which deal with temple architecture and the rituals to be performed in a temple, do not permit any tinkering with the temple structure under any pretext. A few years ago the TTD thought in terms of a second entry/exit point to the main temple complex but dropped the plan after the Mathadhipathis and Peethadhipathis cried sacrilege and pointed out that it would be a violation of the Agamic principles.

In fact, the religious heads are against even the modification of any structure situated outside the main temple. A case in point is the controversy over the recent demolition of the 1,000-pillar mandapam outside the temple to meet the increasing pilgrim influx. While the TTD argued that the demolished mandapam had no religious significance, Tridandi Ramanuja Jeeyar, who spearheaded a movement against the demolition, insisted that it was nonetheless a heritage structure that had to be protected. A few court cases on the demolition and a probe initiated by the government have put a damper on the TTD's initiatives.

THE resistance at Vaishno Devi, the seven-century-old shrine in Udampur district of Jammu and Kashmir, is from environmentalists, who are against the blasting of rocks in the picturesque Trikuta hills to carve out new routes to the shrine. In the last 20 years there has been a manifold increase in the number of pilgrims - it was 6.1 million in 2004 - trekking the approximately 14 km to the shrine, and the authorities have responded by carving out new routes for them. For instance, a new route has halved the time taken to trek between Adhkawari (midway between Katra and Bhavan) and Bhavan but it is prone to landslides. A constant reminder of this fact is the barren mountains along the route. The authorities have built temporary tin sheds along the tract for pilgrims and also put up warning signs.

Officials of the Vaishno Devi Shrine Board say they are carrying out massive afforestation to arrest the instability of the hills, but Sohan Singh, former Chief Conservator of Forest of Jammu and Kashmir and eminent environmentalist, says the damage is irreparable.

The nine-member Vaishno Devi Shrine Board was set up in 1986 with the Governor as the head to ensure that the more than 20,000 pilgrims who visit the shrine every day met with no accident. Among its other members are the State Chief Secretary and the Principal Secretary to the Governor. So far the Board has invested over Rs.125 crores to provide infrastructure and other facilities.

The Board, through a set of guidelines, regulates the pilgrimage. It issues yatra slips at Katra town, which is the base camp, and these have to be produced at Bhavan in order to enter the shrine. The Board has limited the number of slips to 25,000 a day. "This is the best guarantee to avoid a rush, which can become unmanageable near the shrine complex," says Rohit Kansal, additional chief executive officer of the Board.

Two hundred pilgrims are sent into the shrine at a time and they are not allowed to carry coconuts for reasons of security - explosives could be hidden in them. Coconuts are also not allowed to be broken near the holy cave. Pilgrims deposit the coconuts at a counter in the main waiting hall and are given a token. They can reclaim their coconut from a separate counter once they come out of the cave after worship.

At Vaishno Devi, security personnel check offerings brought by pilgrims.-GAURAV VIVEK BHATNAGAR

To meet any eventuality, there is a medical dispensary every 4 km on the route and at Sanjichat, 4 km from the shrine and the highest point of the pilgrimage, there is an intensive care unit. For any trekker who requires immediate specialised treatment, the Board has a free helicopter service to Katra town.

At Vaishno Devi and Tirumala, the threat of militant attacks adds a new dimension to the task of crowd management. At Vaishno Devi, which is located close to the militant-infested areas of Udhampur district, besides the Jammu and Kashmir Police, six companies of the Central Reserve Police Force provide security for pilgrims. The deployment of such a large number of personnel followed the July 21, 2003, killing of six persons, including an infant, in a grenade attack by Lashkar-e-Taiba militants. Now, at various points on the trekking route, pilgrims have to pass through X-ray machines that detect explosives.

The authorities at Tirumala have been on high alert following the terrorist attacks on Parliament House (December 13, 2001), the Askharadam temple in Gandhinagar, Gujarat (September 24, 2002), and Vaishno Devi. The assassination attempt on Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu at Alipiri, on the Tirupati-Tirumala ghat road, on October 1, 2003, led to a further tightening of security at the temple to the extent of making it virtually impregnable. Heavy metal barricades have been installed in front of the `Mahadwaram' and armed guards have been posted at the entrance. At the foothills at Alipiri sophisticated security gadgets have been installed.

At the end of the day, however, one false step, as perhaps happened at the Mandhardevi Temple, could bring to nought the best-laid safety and security plans. That is the eternal challenge before the authorities dealing with crowd control.

Reports from LYLA BAVADAM in Wai PURNIMA TRIPATHI in New Delhi A. DEVARAJAN in Tirupati LUV PURI in Jammu

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