Oct 2, 2008

India - Yet another Stampede

A stampede is a human-made crowd disaster. It can be prevented by simple measures that avert the build-up of critical crowd densities and the triggering of sudden and rapid group movement. Despite the disturbingly frequent occurrence of stampedes in temples, there is a lack of administrative will to establish stringent and comprehensive crowd control mechanisms. The tragedy at Chamunda Devi temple in Jodhpur, in which over 200 people died, bears a close similarity to other temple stampedes. Hilltop shrines have been especially prone to stampedes, with the victims trapped in the precipitous and narrow pathways leading up to them. The 146 people who died at the Naina Devi shrine in Himachal Pradesh in August were waiting to ascend the steep path to the temple. The stampede that claimed nearly 300 lives in 2005 at the Mandhardevi temple near Wai, Maharashtra, occurred after pilgrims slipped on the steep steps leading up to it. Rumours too have played their part in triggering temple stampedes. If the one in Naina Devi was set off by the rumour of a landslide, the one at Chamunda Devi may have been triggered by a false story about a bomb. As at Mandhardevi, many of the victims at Chamunda Devi slipped on steps wet with coconut water spilled from offerings to the deity.

It is about time serious lessons were learnt from the pattern of temple stampedes. It is vitally important to regulate pilgrim movement in all shrines that attract large numbers of people. Such regulation must include marking out clear entry and exit routes; placing checks on the momentum of the flow of people; installing effective public address systems to advise the pilgrims and calm them in situations of panic; and deploying enough police personnel to keep a watch on the movement of the crowd. Haj pilgrimages have been periodically marred by stampedes, with the last one killing 345 people in 2006. In response, the Saudi Arabian government introduced a slew of measures, including a quota system to keep worshippers at a manageable level. The Vaishno Devi temple in Jammu has an intelligent system of issuing yatra slips to limit the number of pilgrims who can visit on any given day. The Himachal Pradesh government has promised to introduce a similar scheme for Naina Devi. While crowd control mechanisms are important, the most effective protection against stampedes is ensuring that the crowd density is manageably low. This applies to all shrines but especially to those vulnerable to stampedes because of an overall lack of space or the steepness or narrowness of approaches and exits.

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