Rushing to death

A stampede in Haridwar has laid bare glaring loopholes in crowd control procedures in the country. Some 20 people were killed and over 50 injured when a crowd of several lakhs of people, who had assembled at the Har ki Pauri ghat on the banks of the Ganga, surged towards the yagnashala.

It is unfortunate that an event aimed at providing devotees with peace and calm ended up in tragedy. Religious gatherings in India are notorious for stampedes. Earlier this year, a stampede in Sabarimala during the makara jyoti festival resulted in scores getting killed. Around a thousand people are reported to have lost their lives over the past decade in crushes in places of worship alone.

Yet little has been done to prevent these tragedies.  In many temples entry and exit are through the same narrow door. Temple authorities, ever anxious to keep control over their turf, are reluctant to heed advice from those experienced in crowd control. Then there are the cops, whose use of metal barricades and lathis to hold back surging crowds only adds to injuries and the melee.

In the run-up to the festival at Haridwar, organisers were boasting that their volunteers would control the crowds. They meant well perhaps but clearly they had underestimated the numbers who would show up. Often, it is poor dissemination of information that contributes to rumours, confusion and people running helter-skelter. It is devotees who end up paying the price for the poor organising of temple rituals and festivals.

There are several lessons that can be drawn from the tragedy at Haridwar. However, blaming the police or authorities for stampedes will not stop tragedies from occurring. The public has a role to play in keeping itself safe. Indians are notorious for not standing in queues or waiting their turn.

We rush when we see a bus approaching, push and shove each other to get out of a plane and storm stadiums even when the tickets we hold promise us entry. No barricade can prevent a stampede if people remain determined to push each other to get ahead. It takes just one person to slip on a banana peel to cause a stampede. Yet we don’t think twice before throwing oil or banana peels or plastic wrapping on the ground, uncaring about the fate of others who step on slippery ground. How many more stampedes does India have to suffer before we begin to mend our ways? 

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