Officials at the Maha Kumbh mela premises had a tough time on Sunday when they found themselves caught between the incessant rush of devotees on Mauni Amavasya, the biggest bathing day, and a steady spin of the rumour mills.
As the bathing started early in the day, much before the sunrise, rumours broke out that four middle-aged women had died in a stampede near the Sangam nose. As the rumour spread, largely by media persons from local newspapers, police forces were rushed to the spot on a fact-finding mission. The state government's media officials went into a tizzy, deluged by queries from reporters seeking details of the stampede.
Officials heaved a sigh of relief as soon as the reports of the incident turned out to be a mere rumours. Police officials said a "minor incident" occurred when some women devotees were pushed by the crowd from behind near the fort.
Relief, however, was short-lived. Officials were informed of a road accident near Arail in which two tractor trolleys turned turtle, injuring over a dozen people. Officials had a harrowing time trying to ascertain the facts, admitted Ashok Sharma, in-charge of the media at the Kumbh. "We have checked reports, but the news of the accident too seems to have been mere rumour," Sharma said.
Rakesh Sharma, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Prabhatam, the firm in charge of distributing information to media persons, also said reports of the stampede and the accident were not true. By noon, there were several more rumours to contend with. Reports were available of a bus accident, a clash between devotees and Rapid Action Force (RAF) personnel near Mahaveer Marg, the presence of an unruly mob at Kali Road and drowning of many members of the Juna Akhada (a sect of ascetics who lead the bathing rituals).
The spokesman of the Juna Akhada however clarified that all members of the sect were safe and were returning to their tents. Reports indicated that a pontoon bridge used by Juna Akahada had collapsed; that too turned out untrue.
With some news channels and local cable networks airing unconfirmed news, the state information department was forced to set up a 24x7 'rumour monitoring cell' headed by a senior information official PK Singh. The cell has since begun to screen all material and footage being aired and necessary clarifications and denials are being issued, Prabhat Mittal, director, information and public relations department of the state government, said.
The CCTV monitoring control room has 65 CCTV cameras; the people monitoring the cameras have also been briefed about the situation, a police official said, adding that vigil has been enhanced on the 68 watch towers across the 58 square km mela area.
Sunday saw the biggest crowds at the 55-day-long kumbh, a once in every 12 years affair that began on January 14 and would culminate March 10, on Shivratri, another auspicious bathing day.
Devesh Chaturvedi, divisional commissioner of Allahabad and seniormost official at the Kumbh confirmed that rumours were rife. He added, however, that they had been quelled in time and all was well at the kumbh. "Everything is fine, bathing is going on well, it's a 60:40 ratio of people going out of kumbh and coming in. I'm sure it was pass peacefully," he said, reassuringly.