God save the pilgrim! The many perils of religious tourism in India

Morbi, Amarnath and Vaishno Devi: pilgrim's progress short on promise as state, infra let them down.
Piligrims move towards holy cave shrine of Amarnath, in Baltal, Jul. 02, 2015.(Photo | PTI)
Piligrims move towards holy cave shrine of Amarnath, in Baltal, Jul. 02, 2015.(Photo | PTI)

In 2013, a study published in the International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction, an affiliate of the Davos-based Global Risk Forum, came up with some startling conclusions. It said that religious gatherings and pilgrimages account for 79 per cent of all stampedes in India.

The sudden panic rush is just one of the many hazards for faith-based tourists. There are many other ways in which the believers perish, much of it connected to poor infrastructure and location.

"Religious festivals, especially when located in 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...," noted the study.

Add to this list, the high incidences of road mishaps, periodic occurrences that take place at national and state highways, where drivers fall asleep at the wheels of overloaded vehicles.

Despite a string of religious disasters in India in the last two decades, things have continued to deteriorate, and 2022 has been particularly bad.

It now turns out that many of the 140-plus who perished in Morbi, Gujarat, on October 30 when the hanging bridge collapsed, were Chhath and Diwali revellers. While they were strictly not religious tourists, the call to faith in modern India is not matched either by infrastructure or official support.

In July this year, 40 people went missing after a cloudburst near the holy Amarnath cave shrine in Jammu and Kashmir. More than six months later, over two dozen pilgrims perished in Vaishno Devi and many others went AWOL, and now comes Morbi.

Over the years, India has increasingly become home to similar death wishes, the only change being the location and headcount. In July 2015, 27 pilgrims died in a stampede on the banks of the Godavari where devotees had gathered on the opening day of 'Pushkaram' festival in Andhra Pradesh's Rajahmundry district; in October 2014, 32 people perished in a stampede at Patna's Gandhi Maidan, shortly after the Dussehra celebrations ended.

There have been much larger casualties; in October 2013, 115 died and over 100 were injured in a stampede during Navratri festivities near Ratangarh temple in Madhya Pradesh's Datia district. In June 2013, more than 100 pilgrims were washed away in Uttarakhand's flash floods while 63 were killed in a stampede at the Ram Janki Temple of Kripalu Maharaj in UP's Pratapgarh district in March 2010 as people gathered to collect free clothes and food from the self-styled godman; in September 2008, 250 devotees died and over 60 were hurt in a stampede triggered by rumours of a bomb going off at Chamunda Devi temple in Rajasthan's Jodhpur city and in August the same year, 162 lost their lives in yet another wild rush triggered by rumours of rockslides at the Naina Devi temple in Bilaspur district of Himachal Pradesh. Again, more than 340 were trampled to death during an annual pilgrimage at Mandhardevi temple in Maharashtra's Satara district in January 2005. The accident occurred when some people fell on the steps made slippery by devotees breaking coconuts.

The list is long, winding and relatively tiny mishaps, occurring on a regular basis, find their way onto the inside pages of newspapers or sporadic ticker tape mentioned on TV channels.

A recent guide prepared by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) agrees, candidly, that "crowd disasters, in general, are man-made disasters", which can be completely prevented with proactive planning and flawless execution by dedicated groups of well-trained personnel.

It lists six categories that 'cause or trigger' such disasters. These include structural (barriers, barricades, pathways, narrow entry-exit points, absence of emergency exits); fire and electricity; crowd control (underestimation of crowd, staff or services, sudden opening of entry doors, poor traffic regulation, lack of an effective public address system); 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); security (lack of planning, inadequate supply of equipment such as walkie-talkies to crowd control personnel, shortage of crowd control personnel) and lack of coordination between various government departments like the police, district administration, fire services, medical officers, event organizers and shortage of basic facilities such as water and communication delays.

To be sure, crowd management has long been part of the charter of duties of the district administration. However, the old methods of managing multitudes have changed radically. These strategies require a re-examination considering the experiences of the last few years and a resetting of the management protocol.

Because of rising religious fervour and political mobilisation – or both - crowds have become more frequent – both the number of regular events and sudden events have gone up sharply. Experts point to a feature almost unique to India: crowds tend to grow too large, and too fast, too soon.

To complicate matters, environmentalists point to a steep rise in events triggered by climate change. Urban floods, incidents of earthquakes, severe heat waves, the recurrence of epidemics, pandemics, and water scarcity -- all require a host of management tasks.

In a country, which gave birth to three of the six major religions in the World - Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism - and is home to Islam and Christianity that took early roots in India, in addition to smaller religions like Zoroastrianism, Bahai, Jain and Jewish faiths, the immediacy of pilgrimages can scarcely be underestimated. India surely deserves better.

(Ranjit Bhushan is a senior journalist. These are the writer's views.)

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