Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Faith’s Fatal Frenzy

Updated: November 16, 2013 12:16 pm

On October 13, 2013, it was Navami; the last day of the Navaratri—an important nine-day-long Hindu festival of fasting, penance and worshipping Goddess Durga. Datia’s Ratangarh Mata Temple, located on the eastern banks of Sindh River—a tributary of river Chambal was attracting devotees like a strong magnet. They came in large numbers from the neighbouring districts of Datia as well as from Uttar Pradesh. Congregation of men, women and children added to the festivities. Women dressed in their bridal finery carrying earthen pot filled with jowar (the barley shoots—an offering to the Goddess) on their head were moving through the milling crowds towards the temple. Nine-day-old pale green barley shoots, grown within the confines of homes were shining bright in the morning sun.

By 9 AM, about one kilometre stretch between the bridge and the temple was full of devotees. The police had stopped vehicles from crossing the bridge. Yet vehicles of a local leader and some tractors with trolleys were permitted to pass through. As these vehicles inched forward, towards the east-end of the bridge, crowds from behind piled up and people grew restless. 110-metre-long bridge was now jam-packed with devotees; oblivious of the situation ahead, more and more people poured in from the west-end of the bridge.

As the crowds swelled up, the situation for a small detachment of police, posted on the bridge went out of control. The policemen resorted to lathi charge, which made situation worse. As people ran towards the west-end, a rumour about the bridge collapsing caused panic. Frightened and disoriented people in order to clear off the bridge, trampled each other and many jumped in the river.

In a matter of just half an hour, it was all over; leaving behind 115 dead, over 100 injured—mostly women and children trampled on the bridge or drowned in the river. Survivors of the stampede were frantically looking for their near and dear ones. Numbed by sudden turn of events, the administration took its own time to start rescue and evacuation operation. Another tragedy got added to the India’s roll of disasters at the religious shrines.

For Ratangarh temple it was a revisit of a similar tragedy. In 2006, during Navaratri, about 50 pilgrims had been swept away by strong currents while crossing the river at the same very spot. Then there was no bridge over Sindh River. A judicial probe into the tragedy by a retired judge was ordered, which submitted its report diligently, but the findings were not made public despite the efforts by some RTI activists.

Our reactions to such tragedies are along the expected lines. Politicians indulge in blame game. Intense politicking erupts to save or destabilise the government. Bureaucrats, if suspended or removed from the assignment, take it sportingly; knowing that no harm will come to them. To deflect people’s attention and media glare, invariably a judicial enquiry under a retired judge is ordered, whose findings remain a mystery. Some meagre compensation is promptly announced for the victims, which never reaches them. Survivors are left to their fate and soon forgotten. Unless goaded by media, no one has time for them or for some introspection into the tragedy. We do not learn from tragedies. We simply wait for the next one to happen, at times, at the same very place.

Our callous attitude to public safety emanates from the culture of ex-gratia payments and shirking of responsibility. We believe that the life of a common man is nothing but a commodity. It comes very cheap—for about rupees 1,50,000 for the dead and even lesser amount for those who are maimed for life. The death of 115 people in the recent tragedy failed to stir a national outrage. In the event of a tragedy, instead of fixing the culpability, rectifying the mistakes, the system tries to dilute the issue by politicking, farce suspensions and on the spot announcement of compensation. Larger issues and responsibility like rehabilitation of survivors and widows and children orphaned by the tragedy are not even discussed.

Public places in India are unguarded, unregulated and most vulnerable. Any harm can come to a person in a park, a market place, a workplace, a religious place, a public transport, etc. Risks and threats in public places vary from simple accidents to high profile terror strikes like 26/11 Mumbai attacks. Religious shrines have a long history of mishaps and tragedies and we lose lives there with frightening regularity.

In India, the religious calendar is choc-a-bloc with back-to-back festivals. There is no let-up in festivals round the year. Large-scale congregations, processions, night-long celebrations and associated disorder and cacophony have become part our daily life.

Kumbh Mela—2013 saw 100 million people visiting Allahabad—a city of just 1.2 million people. On the Mauni Amavashya day some 2.5 million people descended on Sangam—confluence of rivers Ganga and Yamuna to take a holy dip. How can the infrastructure and civic amenities meant for 1.2 million population bear the onslaught of 100 million people?

Every year dozens of Kanwarias—devotees of Lord Shiva, who tread great distances to fetch water from river Ganga for their God, get killed in road accidents.

No one cares. In fact, we take pride in this disorder and jamboree.

Our religious places, being what they are, two distinct threats of accidents and terror strikes are always lurk there. Over the years, crowds in all festivals have increased manifold. With the betterment of communication facilities and personal income, everyone is desirous of paying an obeisance at some shrine. In olden times, a visit to Char Dham—either the shrines of Yamnotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath in Garhwal Himalayas or Badrinath, Puri, Rameshwaram and Dwarka pan-India was considered a lifetime achievement. Today, people do it many times over in their lifetime. There are devotees, who are comfortable with visiting Vaishno Devi temple in Jammu over every weekend from Delhi.

Increasing clientele at the shrines is good news for the trust management, priests, businessmen and politicians. It brings good income to them. No one seems to be complaining. Everyone wants good crowds thronging at their shrine gates. One has to grudgingly appreciate the tenacity with which an Indian devotee goes on a pilgrimage. There are many shrines, where average waiting time for a Darshan is 8-16 hours, but the devotees braving weather, tiredness, hunger and privation wait patiently for their turn.

Unlike the west, our shrines are congested, mostly part of an old settlement having narrow alleys for approach and exit. The sanctum sanctorum is invariably a chamber measuring 100-150 square feet with just one door. Imagine a surging crowd of 1,00,000 devotees on an auspicious occasion wanting to have a Darshan of the deity in that confined space by jostling and trampling fellow devotees. Many tragedies have had happened within the precincts of temples.

Every temple or shrine has a definite capacity to accommodate and conduct the devotees. It cannot be flouted. If the tragedies are to be avoided, shrine management and local administration should not permit more devotees. Time has come to regulate entry to a shrine on auspicious occasions. For Shri Amarnath Yatra, the entry is through registration and the accidents have come down. Currently, the Haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia is underway, each country can avail a fixed quota of devotees and even the Saudi nationals cannot exceed the quota.

There is an urgent need to decongest our religious places. Problem lies in the auspicious moments for festivals and rituals as fixed by the clergy. Everyone wants to be at the sanctum sanctorum at that particular moment. Clergy can help to decongest the shrines. For example, there are four Navaratri—one each in every quarter, but the Shardiya (winter) Navaratri holds special significance for the devotees. If the other three Navaratri are also accorded similar importance, the crowds at the temples will be spaced out throughout the year. There are many other festivals in Hindu religious calendar which can spaced in a similar manner.

The IT can help too. It would not be a far-fetched idea to popularise the custom of e-darshan. The image of the presiding deity at the sanctum sanctorum can be projected through holography technique on a giant screen for devotees obviating the requirement of everyone entering the temple precincts.

Why do the tragedies happen at religious places? Trust managing the shrine or temple does not have committed volunteers. State administration does not carry out risks and threat appreciation of the place or event. There are no procedures and contingency plans, based on which preparations could be made. No resources for the event are marshalled beforehand. Police and home guard personnel are ill-trained in handling such events and their crowd control and queue management systems are primitive. Command and control by authorities is adhoc and bereft of any inputs, which would improve situational awareness, decision-making and response to emergencies.

Risks and threats to public places have multiplied; these cannot be handled by employing physical security measures alone. A risk and threat analysis (RTA) of religious places is a very important tool for understanding the shrine-specific challenges in managing large gatherings.

An integrated security system encompassing human, physical, technical and procedural aspects needs to be evolved for all public places to minimise avoidable casualties. It is feasible. Our response to Phailin cyclone has proved that advanced planning and preparations can avert tragedies and save lives. Devotees, despite all odds and risks will continue to flock the religious places, it is the responsibility of the administration to mitigate the risks and threats that lie between them and their faith.

By Colonel (Retd.) US Rathore

(The author is a risk & threat analyst and defence & security expert)

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