Why religious pilgrimages in India are conducive to tragedies

There are reasons that stampedes occur with more frequency during religious gatherings or pilgrimages
Why religious pilgrimages in India are conducive to tragedies
Why religious pilgrimages in India are conducive to tragedies
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Over 700 people were killed and 805 people injured in Mina, Saudi Arabia in one of the worst stampedes to occur at the Hajj pilgrimage.

On Thursday, the disaster occurred during the performance of a ritual in which the devil is symbolically stoned. Pebbles are thrown at three walls that represent the devil.

History of accidents

Stampedes are not exclusive to the Hajj. But they do occur disproportionately higher at religious gatherings than at any other type of gathering, at least in India.

A 2013 study published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction found that religious gatherings and pilgrimages account for 79 percent of all stampedes in India.

The last time Saudi saw such high death-toll was in July 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims were crushed to death in a tunnel near Mecca. This too, occurred on Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), Islam's most important feast and the day of the stoning ritual.

A total of 2,788 pilgrims have died in stampedes during the Hajj since the 1990s with stampedes occurring in 1994, 1998, 2004, and 2006.

The latest stampede to occur at a religious festival in India was on July 15 in Andhra Pradesh, where a stampede at the Pushkar ghat in Rajamundry claimed 29 lives during the Godavari Pushkarulu.

In 2011, at least 105 Sabarimala devotees were killed and over 40 injured in a stampede that followed a jeep crashing into home-bound pilgrims at Pulmedu in Kerala's Idukki district.

Stampedes may be the main reason for deaths in religious pilgrimages, but they are definitely not the only one. Infections are another major concern and so are fires.

The Kumbh Mela of 2013 is one such example, when a fire broke out in the wee hours of the morning at the venue in Allahabad. Though only one person was killed and two injured, at least 30 make-shift tents set up for the pilgrim were burnt down with the pilgrim's possessions. 

Why religious gatherings

There are reasons that stampedes occur disproportionally higher during religious gatherings or pilgrimages.

An expert on crowd control quoted by the Washington Post in the wake of the Godavari Pushkarlu says that in India particularly, people are not uncomfortable in crowds on account of “higher tolerance”, and that crowds have a tendency to suddenly grow too large, and too fast.

Teresa Moore, who works with the International Centre for Crowd Management and Security Studies in the UK, told the Post: “People panic and react. Couple that with a rumor, which can come out of that feeling of panic, that’s when you can get a surge or a problem.

The study in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction found that religious gatherings pose a lot of problems that relate to infrastructure and location.

“Religious festivals, especially when located at remote rural areas and on hilly terrains, and on the foothills or at riverbanks lacking proper pathways always pose a geographical risk to the pilgrims. Steep slopes, uneven topography of the venue, dead ends, slippery and muddy floors, narrow passages, convergence of pedestrian flow to a single point are among the common risks prevailing in religious gathering sites, compromising safety and triggering stampedes,” it said.

The Hajj however, is one of the world’s easier religious pilgrimages to manage, as it always occurs in the same place, therefore allowing authorities to build permanent infrastructure.

India however, is home to some of the most dangerous locales for pilgrimages, including events like the Kumbh Mela, which is the largest religious festival in the world.

A 2014 guide prepared by the National Disaster Management Authority titled “Managing Crowds at Events and Venues of Mass Gathering” recognizes the need for crowd control mechanisms in the backdrop of recurring stampedes and comprehensively outlines the role of each stakeholder agency including the media.

It notes: “The crowd disasters, in general, are man-made disasters which can be completely prevented with proactive panning and flawless execution by dedicated groups of well-trained personnel.”

On basis of inquiry reports of past disasters, the guide lists six categories of factors as “causes and triggers” for crowd disasters:

1. Structural (barriers, barricades, pathways, narrow entry-exit points, absence of emergency exits),

2. Fire and electricity (electricity failure creating sudden panic, cooking in makeshift facilities, wooden structure catching fire, faulty wiring),

3. Crowd control (underestimation of crowd, staff or services, sudden opening of entry doors, poor traffic regulation, lack of good public address system),

4. Crowd behaviour (wild rush to force way to exits, religious leaders taking a route other than prescribed by officials in charge, anger over delay, last minute change in schedule of train etc)

5. Security (lack of planning, inadequate supply for equipment such as walkie-talkies to crowd control personnel, shortage of crowd control personnel)

6. Lack of coordination between stakeholders (lack of coordination between various government departments such as police, district administration, fire services, medical officers, event organizers, shortage of basic facilities such as water, communication delays)

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