Vaishno Devi Shrine Accident

In the early hours of January 1, just as the new year dawned, a big tragedy spread a wave of sadness in Jammu where 12 pilgrims died and almost as many were injured in a stampede. It is really sad that such an accident which generally takes place in conditions of overcrowding  has taken place at the time of COVID. Published interviews with survivors have revealed that relief and rescue could also have been better.

This is one of the most famous pilgrim sites of India and has received considerabe attention in recent years in terms of improvements. Hence the news of such an accident has evoked feelings of shock and the inquiry report which has been ordered will be keenly awaited. One hopes that improvements  based on this report will be able to strengthen safety arrangements at the much visited pilgrimage site.

The list of accidents reported from religious events and pilgrimage sites in India is a long one. In October 2016, 25 people who arrived in Varanasi from various parts of the country to attend a religious function of the Jai Gurudev sect died in an entirely avoidable stampede tragedy. Over 100 persons are reported to have been injured in the same tragedy.

On October 15 followers of the sect started moving towards the bridge linking Varanasi to neighboring  Chandauli district where the main event was scheduled near the border of two districts. It soon became clear that the number of participants in the procession passing the bridge was much higher than the estimates given earlier to the administration by the organizers.

While an estimate of about 3000 to 4000 processionists had been provided, officials have said that about one  hundred times this number actually collected, while even the organizers admit the number was about 20 times the earlier estimate. If the administration on the basis of its own intelligence  had estimated and taken precautionary steps like scheduling the procession in smaller parts, the tragedy could have been avoided.

The massive overcrowding and jam on an old bridge on an extraordinarily hot October morning and afternoon resulted in distress and chaos, some thirsy people fainted just near the Ganga river and finally rumours of damage to bridge led to the stampede that caused so many deaths and injuries.

Even later some precious human lives could have been saved if prompt medicare was available. However available news reports indicate that in a glaring case of gender base discrimination, proper hospital medicare was denied to several women victims. A leading Hindi newspaper of this region reported on October 16 that the organizers took five seriously injured women victims to the ashram and not to hospital. The newspaper  said that perhaps the life of these women could have been saved if they were taken immediately to hospital. Soon after such tragedies or other kinds of stampedes medical treatment for all victims should be ensured without any discrimination.

Another priority after such a tragedy should be to try to unite lost children with their parents who  may get seperated at the time of the tragedy. If parents cannot be found quickly, after properly recording the names and other details of children they  should be provided the safe custody of an official institution or a well recognized and responsible voluntary organization, who should look after the separated children properly till such time that they can be united with their families. News reports indicate that some children were separated in the chaos resulting from the stampede.

Similar tragedies involving even larger scale deaths and injuries have been reported several times in the context of religious gatherings and in almost such cases glaring negligence of necessary precautions has also been frequently mentioned. In perhaps the biggest such tragedy in India in 1954, over 800  pilgrims perished at the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad. In the Mandhar Devi tragedy at Wai, Maharashtra 258 people died in year 2005 while  249 perished in the Chamunda  Temple in Jodhpur in 2008.The Ratangarh Mata Temple tragedy claimed 115 human lives in Madhya Pradesh in 2013. Available statitistical data mention numerous other similar tragedies and also that nearly 4 out of five stampedes in India are related to religious gatherings.

At the international level the most tragic of such incidents have been reported in the context of Haj pilgrimage. In July 1990 inside the al-Muaissem tunnel near Mecca, 1426 pilgrims were crushed to death. In September 2015 Haj pilgrims died mainly due to stampedes, while 111 were killed earlier in the same month in a crane crash. In July 2006 382 Haj pilgrims were crushed to death at the Jamarat Bridge during the stoning ritual.

The possibility of such tragedies can be reduced significantly by careful planning and administrative measures implemented with the cooperation of local people and pilgrims. While some steps such as those relating to  the preparation of all basic facilities  and accident prevention personnel and equipments in keeping with the size of expected crowds are needed at all such gatherings, there are other precautions which are specific to various gatherings. For example there are precautions relating to the observation of certain rituals and the problems that may arise when a very large number observe the same ritual more or less together in a huge crowd.

Then there are special precautions relating to the narrow size of some religious places or the path leading to them, relative to the crowds that are likely to gather. Finally, as the latest tragedy of Varanasi has shown, the administration should not just rely on estimates provided by organizers  about the number of people but in addition should also carry out some independent monitoring on their own . In the larger interests of the safety of pilgrims or other assembled people, the administration should not hesitate to take steps which may not be to the immediate liking of organizers, such as steps relating to the number of people who can be allowed safely in some specific place. Various religious groups should also give adequate attention to safety aspects while planning for their events.Responsibility for safety should be carefully fixed.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Man Over Machine.

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