Religious gatherings in India are prone to stampedes mainly due to crowd mismanagement, people’s tolerance for overcrowded spaces, uneven terrains on which temples are located or events are generally held, and officials’ refusal to learn from previous crowd disasters.
Crowd disasters are a recurring event in India, especially at religious gatherings and temples. Based on data compiled by Factly.in, between 2001 and 2014, more than 2,421 people died in over 3,000 stampedes in the country. And a majority of them occurred at religious events. A paper published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction (IJDRR) in 2013 notes that 79 percent of all stampedes in the country occur at places of worship. These incidents can largely be ascribed to the lack of crowd control mechanisms and competent planning or coordination on the part of organisers. However, the majority of the time, it is the ‘frenzied’ crowd that takes the whole blame.
In 2015, on the very first day of the 12-day Maha Pushkaralu festival in Andhra Pradesh, 27 people, mainly elderly women, died in a stampede on the banks of the Godavari. Pilgrims had been waiting for over an hour near the entrance to the ghat while the chief minister performed his ablutions and a pooja. Once the narrow gate to the ghat was opened, the crowd, which had unexpectedly surged, started pushing to get through. However, a woman slipped and fell in the process, sparking the stampede. Despite there being five other relatively empty ghats, officials did not divert the pilgrims, leading to a dense crowd build-up. The state government spent Rs 1,500 crore on large-scale arrangements for the festival but poor execution by planners resulted in a needless disaster.
Stampedes or crowd crushes usually start in places that are crammed beyond capacity with people (10 people per sqm or more). Jeff Wise, a science writer, classifies stampedes into two categories—unidirectional and turbulent. Wise explains that a ‘positive change in force’, such as a blockade, that stops the crowd or a ‘negative change in force,’ such as the opening up of a gate, that suddenly releases the accumulated crowds, can cause a unidirectional stampede. It is probable that the stampede at the Maha Pushkaralu festival was the result of a negative change in force as the swelling crowd was allowed to enter at once.
In case of a positive change in force, people come up against a barrier that, while halting the front of the crowd, does not stop those in the back from advancing as they cannot see the section of the crowd that has stopped moving. As more and more individuals continue to enter the area, they get compressed against each other with very little breathing space. Consequently, several people can die due to suffocation, or the weight of the crowd could break the barriers holding them back, causing people to fall over and prompt a stampede.
Furthermore, when a person falls down, either because they slipped, fainted, or were pushed, in the middle of such a crowd, they themselves become a block to the masses behind them. In such situations, the crowd progressively “collapses,” resulting in a crush. A sudden gap is created in the crowd because of the fall and there is no opposing force to counter the pressure exerted by the people moving in from behind. Hence, more persons fall into the enlarging gap till the pressure subsides.
A turbulent stampede, on the other hand, occurs either when two high-density crowds move towards each other or when a static crowd is stirred by panic. In such tightly packed situations, people are already on the edge due to the lack of space. Any disruption can provoke a sense of threat in the gathering, whose prime goal then becomes personal safety. A person slipping or an unfounded rumour can throw them into panic and without enough officials to reassure the crowd and ensure safe and orderly movement, the situation spirals out of control.
As Teresa Moore, director of education and training at the International Centre for Crowd Management and Security Studies, UK, said in an interview to the Wall Street Journal, large-scale events in India are more susceptible to stampedes because of a greater tolerance for high-density crowds. She says, “The higher tolerance for crowded places in India allows for more people to get closer, because they don’t feel uncomfortable until it’s very packed.”
Religious events and temples are specifically vulnerable as a majority of them are located on hills, river banks, and the like, where the uneven terrain is already a risk to pilgrims. The setting becomes more hazardous when coupled with the lack of physical infrastructure and safety measures to support large gatherings. In 2005, at the Mandhardevi Kalubai temple in Maharashtra, more than 300 people were killed in a stampede that started on the steps of the inner sanctum where devotees, mainly women and children, slipped in coconut water and were trampled by the hordes making their way inside. Officials stated that, angered by the news of the trampling, those still climbing the stairs to the temple started setting fire to the stalls on either side. Some of these unlicensed temporary stalls that had cropped up for the occasion were illegally storing LPG cylinders that exploded due to the fire, adding to the chaos.
The most pitiable part of the stampede was that it was completely avoidable. According to Frontline magazine, the temple compound, which could only accommodate 250 individuals, was packed with close to 1,000 people at the time of the stampede. And despite being aware that the day of the incident was auspicious to pilgrims, who had crowded to the temple in lakhs, there were only 300 policemen to manage the gathering. To make the area riskier, there was no separate section to break coconuts as an offering to the goddess, water from which flowed freely and caused people to slip, starting the stampede. Furthermore, the makeshift stalls were not prevented from storing LPG cylinders notwithstanding the danger they posed to people in such a crowded environment.
It takes a sizeable amount of planning and coordination between organisers and local administrative departments to forestall crowd disasters. First and foremost, it is important to correctly determine the capacity of a location or structure before holding mass gatherings. Secondly, there need to be separate entry and exit points and pathways to maintain a unidirectional flow of crowds, as well as easily accessible emergency exits in case of a crisis. Thirdly, an adequate number of police and security personnel have to constantly monitor (through CCTV cameras, ticketing systems, and on-ground surveillance) and regulate the density of the gathering to curb overcrowding and ensure enough space for unrestricted movement. Fourthly, safety checks should be conducted regularly and, particularly, prior to major events to prevent electrical short-circuits, fires, slippery floors, obstructive barriers, and more. At the same time, emergency medical and fire services should be made available on site, especially in remote areas, where reaching the location of the disaster immediately might be difficult. Finally, should there be trouble, a public address system, whereby officials can stop rumours from getting out of hand, calm panicked crowds, and help people exit in a systematic manner, must be available.
The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) released a report in 2014 with guidelines for crowd management, and disaster prevention and containment. It even holds training exercises with administrative departments to be prepare them for large-scale events. Yet, stampedes at religious gatherings, or otherwise, continue to occur as before. And despite the frequency of the incidents, the governments’ response typically ends at announcing monetary relief to the injured or families of the dead. Perhaps it would do more good to invest in preventive measures for a change and protect human life.