Tragic beginning to Pushkaram

S. Madhusudhana Rao

Our fears have come true on the first day itself of the 12-day Godavari Pushkaram. With nearly 30 deaths and injuries to scores of people at one of the ghats in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh, the Tuesday morning tragedy has struck a horrific note on the otherwise grand religious event that began amidst elaborate arrangements.

It is arguable, however, whether the large number of casualties was avoidable and whether the AP government had made adequate arrangements to handle lakhs of devotees who are expected to descend on Rajahmundry every day during the event. While a thorough investigation will reveal what has gone wrong –Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu has promised to institute a probe after the Pushkaram – prima facie the stampede was the result of a sudden rush of people towards the river to have a holy dip.

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S. Madhusudhana Rao

Over-enthusiasm, coupled with religious fervor, had proved fatal for some of those who were caught in the swirl of a human wave at that particular moment. At such events, a surcharged atmosphere of human emotions is unavoidable which sometimes lead to deadly melees. Year after year, accidents at religious places and events continue to occur across the country but authorities seem to have learnt little from the tragedies. A look at some of these explains how complacency and public and official ignorance had been the contributing factors.

Last year, on August 24, at least 10 devotees were killed and several injured at a stampede in Chitrakoot, Madhya Pradesh. On October 13, 2013, sudden rush for darshan near Ratangarh temple, again in Madhya Pradesh, claimed 89 lives and left over 100 injured. The stampede occurred on a narrow bridge leading to the temple. In February the same year, 36 were killed and nearly 40 injured in a stampede at Allahabad railway station in Uttar Pradesh during Kumbh Mela.

In recent years, among the worst tragedies at a holy place/event was in Sabarimala, Kerala, on January 14, 2011. A stampede at the annual pilgrimage left 106 Swami Ayyappa devotees dead and more than 100 injured. Thousands of lives had been lost in dozens of stampedes, both major and minor, at different places across the country over the years.

What’s common to all these tragedies? Poor crowd management followed by other factors such as inadequate facilities, unimaginative arrangements and general apathy. We have disaster management force to tackle with human misery after natural disasters like floods, quakes, cyclones, etc; but not a dedicated crowd management force. The task is largely left to local police and special forces who are used to deal with unruly mobs and riots, not with a large number of people who gather for special events like Kumbh Mela, Pushkarams, etc. Now, there is a need to include crowd management techniques in police academies to avert tragedies like the one that happened in Rajahmundry.

The only state that seems to have perfected crowd management to an appreciable extent is Uttar Pradesh. It has received wholesome praise for managing Maha Kumbh Mela in 2013 without any incident at the actual site in Allahabad (Triveni Sangam). Even Harvard University had its students study the model.

While the first day of Pushkaram was incident free in Telangana State, the Pushkar Ghat deaths in Rajahmundry have cast a long shadow on AP Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu with expected political repercussions. While Congress leaders have demanded an apology (since Naidu won’t resign) owning up moral responsibility and an increase in compensation to victims, YSR Congress leader Jaganmohan Reddy has announced “odarpu yatra.”

According to eyewitness accounts aired by the digital media, Chandrababu and his family members had taken the holy dip at Pushkar Ghat, instead of the VIP Ghat, holding up the public for a few hours. When the gates were opened, pilgrims waiting for hours outside with pent-up impatience had rushed in, resulting in the stampede. Had the CM and his entourage gone to the VIP Ghat, keeping in mind the rush on the first day, the tragedy would have been averted. Clearly, it’s a case of VIP culture that puts public to inconvenience and causes hardships at pilgrim centres like Tirupati.

Another glaring mistake on the part of officials was they seemed to have failed in diverting the pilgrim traffic to other ghats when the crowd was building up at the ghat where the CM had his holy dip. A little persuasion and delay alerts would have done the trick. Given the kind of condescend attitude our officials adopt towards public, it may be too much to expect from them.

Whatever the reasons may be, blame games, politicizing the issue to score a few brownie points or to settle scores won’t help us. Civic sense, public discipline and official alertness at mass events are the need of the hour. Eleven more days are to go. They should be made incident-free. People take the holy dip during Godavari Pushkaram believing it will wash away their sins. The holy event should not turn into tragedies.

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