36 persons were killed in a very tragic accident caused by the falling of roof slabs on worshippers who had collected for Ram Navmi prayers. 16 others have been admitted to hospital with injuries. The tragedy occurred at a step well located inside Baleshwar Mahadev Jhulelal temple in Indore. Many people fell inside the step well when slabs well on them.
While a magisterial probe is expected to bring out more detailed information regarding the causes of the tragedy, the initial reports appears to suggest unsafe construction as well as lack of adequate caution before organizing the special festival events. Generally the special ceremonies are held outside the temple but due to ongoing construction work these were held inside the temple and so special safety precautions should have been taken but these appear to have been neglected. Reports suggest temple authorities had been acting in rather arbitrary ways, encroaching on green areas. The construction activities may have also have obstructed safety aspects or led to lesser attention being paid to them.
This suggests that the temple’s safety aspects were not appropriately regulated by authorities and this neglect continued even at the time of festival preparations. There is a lesson to be learnt here as this happens all too commonly. As several religious places, particularly those constructed a long time back, have rather cramped spaces and particularly some core areas can be cramped, there has to be careful preparation for managing the large number of people who come for prayers and offerings on festive occasions.
Very simple precautions can lead to preventing disasters. There have been cases where breaking of coconuts leading to spilling of slippery coconut oil, or spilling of slippery ceremonial oil, led to slipping of a few people leading to stampede among others, or where carelessly placed cooking fuel cylinders and frying oil cauldrons close to crowd collection places led to avoidable fires. Due to such factors, even relatively small religious places can become the sites for big accidents.
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.
A day earlier 15 followers of the sect had 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 persons’ procession 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 thirsty people fainted just near the Ganga river and finally rumors 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 medical care was available. However available news reports indicate that in a glaring case of gender base discrimination, proper hospital medical care 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. Clearly at the time of such tragedies 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 separated 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.
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 statistical data mention numerous other similar tragedies and also that nearly 4 out of five stampedes in India are related to religious gatherings.
The possibility of such tragedies can be reduced significantly by careful planning and administrative measures implemented with the cooperation of local people and pilgrims. The specific places as well as times when there is greater chance of a stamped or accident should be identified carefully. Avoidable cramping caused at such places by stalls and hawkers should be checked. People can be asked to assemble at a bigger open space and then smaller numbers who can be safely accommodated in more cramped places can be summoned in phases. The movement of people should be in one direction while those coming back should have a different route.
While some steps such as those relating to the preparation of all basic facilities and accident prevention personnel and equipment 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. The same guidelines cannot be applied to all places and local contexts are more important, although some precautions, such as avoiding all inflammable material, are common everywhere.
Several religious places and festivals tend to be located or organized near rivers, other water sources and in hilly areas, include hazard-prone hill areas, and the specific contexts of such places need to be kept in the planning.
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. 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 its 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 or religious place managers, 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, Protecting Earth for Children and Man over Machine.