Madhya Pradesh

Fatal crossing

Print edition : November 15, 2013

The scene after the stampede on the Sindh river bride at Ratangarh temple in Datia district.

IN the early hours of October 13, the last day of the Navratri festival, over a lakh of people made their way through the night towards the Ratangarh Mata Mandir in the jungle near Datia in Madhya Pradesh for a darshan of the deity at dawn. They had to cross a bridge across the Sindh river about five kilometres before the temple. The bridge, guarded by 15-20 policemen at both ends, had a steady stream of commercial vehicles, too, and some of these vehicles and tractor trolleys had been parked on the bridge. This is despite the fact that vehicles had been banned on the bridge.

A rumour that the bridge was crumbling set off panic and the crowd surged ahead. However, the policemen at that end of the bridge charged at the crowd with lathis and batons. Chaos prevailed as people were crushed in the melee and fell over one another; some jumped into the river. More than 100 people lost their lives; the official death toll was put at 115, though informed sources said it could be higher.

The stampede could have been avoided if only the administration had been a little more prepared. Even the basics of crowd management were flouted that day. To begin with, the District Collector was missing; he had suddenly gone on leave to tend to his ailing mother. Only a handful of policemen were around to control lakhs of people, and even they were unmindful of the situation. They were letting vehicles cross the bridge and had also allowed vehicles to be parked on the bridge against orders.

The government admitted to the administrative lapses but said no one could plan a foolproof strategy when such huge crowds were involved. “There was a totally baseless rumour, which created panic. Who could have foreseen this?” asked a senior government official. He, however, admitted that the situation could have been handled better had a senior official been present at the site. “We admit these lapses and that is why action has been taken against senior administrative and police officials,” he said. Seventeen policemen and four officials, including the Superintendent of Police, the Collector, the Sub-divisional Magistrate, and the Deputy Superintendent of Police, were suspended.

In 2006, at the same place, 54 people drowned in the river when their overcrowded boat overturned. “An inquiry committee had recommended that a pucca bridge, instead of the wooden bridge that was there, should be built across the river. That was done. So, it is not fair to say that we took no measures. Yes, there were lapses. Action has been taken and more action will be taken once the judicial inquiry report comes,” the senior officer said.

The new Collector of Datia, Raghuraj M.R., was confident that a big mela that is to be held at the temple on November 5 on the occasion of Diwali Dooj would pass without any untoward incident. “We are deploying 1,600 policemen in the area. Senior administrative officials will also be there in advance and proper crowd control will be done so that no crossing of inbound and outbound people takes place,” he said.

Amid all this, the State Bharatiya Janata Party believes that the incident will not affect its prospects in the coming elections. “Most of the casualties are from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, almost 80 per cent, so the fallout will be negligible. Besides, prompt action was taken against those prima facie responsible and adequate compensation was given to the families of those killed and injured,” said Prabhat Jha, State BJP president.

Purnima S. Tripathi