The stampede at Allahabad railway station in which 36 people have been killed so far is an unfortunate reality of Indian pilgrimages. Each time pilgrims throng a religious venue, we read of disasters, mostly caused by crowds that trample upon those who stumble and fall. It is usually the physically vulnerable — the elderly, children and women — who are killed in these stampedes.
If you look at the rush of visitors to the ongoing Maha Kumbh Mela, there is no doubt that it is a very well-organised affair. The fact is that over three crore devotees could take a dip at the ‘sangam’ on a single day is testimony to the progress our crowd management abilities have made since the 1954 Kumbh, when over 300 died in a major stampede. Sixty years later, stampedes continue to occur.
The number of pilgrims is only bound to increase in the years ahead because of an increasing population, higher disposable incomes and ease of travel. Thus, there is a real fear that unless we dramatically improve our crowd management systems, right from the time the pilgrims start arriving in town and at every stage of the pilgrimage, more and more people will die.
We will simply have to come up with new ways to manage crowds — at religious sites, railway and bus stations, and on the streets. We will have to limit the crowds at particular spots during auspicious hours. How this is done is something the experts must work out. But what is certain is that the old ways simply won’t do if we want to end tragedies at our religious celebrations.