Turning temples into death traps

Turning temples into death traps

Courting trouble  A file photo of a chaotic scene at the Jagannath temple in Ahmedabad. Crowd management remains a challenge in most temples across the country.

Every year religious faith drives lakhs of devotees in the country to several popular holy shrines. For a few thousand of them the journey proves to be the last of their lives.
Why do disasters have a frequent date with the temples?  The answer is easy to find: temples are yet not part of disaster management plans of the state governments. The state governments, local administration and political parties treat these tragedies with routine indifference as they do not impact their power-play or the vote bank politics.
“We could not get an inquiry report into a similar temple stampede in another state as it was not traceable. I am talking about a recent incident,” comments a top central official wryly requesting anonymity. 

The short-lived public memory and absence of an organised campaign for better infrastructure and crowd management at popular religious sites is of course, another major reason for these tragedies.  

Barring a few cash-rich places such as Tirupati and Shirdi, the temples in far-off places where pilgrims flock on `auspicious days` have no administrative supervision. “We are going to ask the states to include large congregations at temples, mosques and churches in their disaster plan. Crowd management at religious places has to be made part of disaster management plans,” says  Shashidhar Reddy,  Vice-Chairman National Disaster Management  Agency (NDMA).   

NDMA, headed by Prime Minister, and State Disaster Management Authorities, led by respective chief ministers, are meant to spearhead an integrated approach to disaster management. NDMA has no direct role here as temple stampedes are not treated as national disasters, while the law and order remains a state subject.

Reddy, however, says soon a suggestion would be made to the states to adopt standard disaster management procedures at all pilgrim sites. He says Tirupati has a contingency plan and crowds are well-regulated with a “long and winding queue” to prevent the possibility of a big surge. A mock-drill is being conducted this week at Tirupati to check crowd-control management there, he says.  

The incidents of stampedes at religious shrines are repeating themselves with a menacing regularity. It is the failure to regulate crowd that triggers these mishaps. It goes without saying that all such incidents can be preempted if local administrations act responsibly.

A majority of the temples in the country are located at a height. They usually have narrow and winding foot-steps to take pilgrims to the door of the shrine. In this limited space, a surging crowd without proper police regulation can turn deadly for thousands, particularly for women and children.  

A stampede during a religious festival at Naini Devi temple in Himachal Pradesh left 148 dead, including more than 40 children, in August 2008. Like Sabarimala, it was also a hill top temple. Rains had forced thousands of pilgrims to gather at a shelter. Disinformation by some on their way down that large stones had begun sliding down coupled with rumours of a bomb led to the catastrophe.

The local administration was handicapped by the lack of any public address system to provide correct information. Metal guard rails meant to protect temple visitors from slipping down steep drops were knocked down by the panicky crowds, sending some tumbling down the hillside to their death.

Indifference to managing activities as simple as distribution of free food and clothes killed 63 people at a temple in Kunda, Uttar Pradesh, in April, 2010. Nearly all victims were women and children.  

Severe over-crowding of the narrow spaces close to the temple areas coupled with wild rumours are a common trigger in some of the  biggest stampedes in the country.
In September, 2008, nearly 12,000 people had gathered at a temple inside the 15th century Mehrangarh fort, Jodhpur, to mark the first day of ‘Navratra’, a nine-day Hindu festival. Overcrowding triggered a crush and killed 168 people.

Officials say enormous crowds congregating during auspicious days are also an invitation for trouble.  “At Sabarimala each year on January 14, a large crowd turns up to witness Makra Jyoti (divine flame). The last stampede also took place on January 14,” says Reddy. Authorities have to see the carrying capacity of the place. “If a dam is filled beyond its capacity it would lead to disaster,” he adds.

Religious leaders could play a positive role by appealing to devotees to visit temples on different days without being obsessed with ‘auspicious days’. Authorities in Mecca have partly solved overcrowding at the valley of Meena during the ceremony of ‘stoning the evil’ by informing Muslims that there was no particular auspicious day for the ritual, which could be done at any day or time.  

Stampedes are not limited to temples. The local police administration is usually busy making arrangements for VIPs in large gatherings, giving scant attention to crowd management. Ahead of the 2004 election, more than 20 women died in Lucknow in a stampede during distribution of saris by Lalji Tandon, a BJP leader. Ensuring sufficient spacing between different recipients of saris could have averted the tragedy, say experts.  

Stampedes, be they secular or divine, are never followed up by a proper documentation of sequence of events. Inquiry reports gather dust as administrations hardly take any pro-active measures. “It is an out-of-sight is out-of-mind phenomenon,” says a senior official in Home Ministry.

Prakash Singh, former Director-General of UP police and the BSF, minces no words in condemning the local administration for the Sabarimala tragedy.  “The entire administrative set-up is responsible but now everybody is passing the buck,” he says.  The Collector and the SP should be given marching orders without any inquiry, Singh maintains.

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