Crowd disasters happen at birthday celebrations of political leaders, rallies, temple festivals, funerals, railway stations and cinema halls among many potentially dangerous situations. Between 2000 and 2013, it is estimated that 2,293 people died in stampedes at various types of mass gatherings. India is one of the oldest civilisations with a great cultural heritage and rich religious diversity. Followers of religious and cultural stocks celebrate their beliefs as festivals with worships, feasts, songs, effigies, pyrotechnics and hymns. Even though political or entertainment events attract large crowds, mass gatherings of religious festivals are frequently becoming the loci of crowd disasters in the country.
Religious crowding has been the venue of 79 percent of human stampedes in the country. Information on human stampedes is available only on those incidents where casualties have been reported. There are hundreds of other accidents or near misses that have not reached mainstream media or have remained unknown.
Vulnerability of religious gatherings
Religious gatherings are more vulnerable to human stampedes with its physical composition. Festivals attract large crowds comprising children, youth, middle-aged and older people to vulnerable locations like hilltops, valleys or river banks. Many religious sites are located at remote places where infrastructure and medical facilities are very limited. Hazards persisting at venues are usually neglected and gatherings continue to be held at same places. As a result, stampedes recur at the same place over regular intervals. Practices followed during celebrations such as burning large effigies, processions through congested places, pyrotechnics and pilgrims rolling on the ground attribute more vulnerability to crowd disturbance. Crowd disturbances generated among a few individuals turn as crowd-pushing waves, which pass through the mass of people in a couple of minutes as earthquake waves pass. It will disrupt the orderly flow of crowd, instigating irrational movement for self-protection and escape from the crowd.
Venue Safety: Our country is still lacks proper event approval/licensing system for religious mass gatherings. In developed countries, organisers have to get event approval from the competent authority based on venue safety certification. We have multiples of religious institutions and mass gatherings even at village-level.
At present, there is no established system at the administrative level to systematically record and monitor mass gathering events and their safety. Venue certification based on the crowd capacity and safety measures need to be introduced at district-level to streamline the process of safe mass gathering organisation. Preparedness measures designed for the mass gathering events should be taken into account by authorities before giving final approval for the event.
Take the case of Godavari Pushkaram or Nashik Kumbh. Safety systems should address specific physical venue characters as well as the religious practices and rituals. What is the crowd-holding capacity of Godavari Pushkaram or Kumbh venue? How much time a devotee will spend at a ghat to perform rituals?
How many individuals can be accommodated at a bathing ghat in an hour/day? How much area is available for crowd movement? What is the expected crowd inflow and outflow rate? Whether the entry and exit systems are designed as per the crowd flow rate? Crowd density and movement pattern analysis have been performed for the venue? What are prevailing hazards at the venue? What facilities are available for evacuation and emergency response?
If safety measures are implemented without looking into above basic facts, there would be a mismatch in actual requirements and available safety measures. We have undertaken such studies to develop such facts-based safety systems to Sabarimala pilgrimage, one of the largest pilgrimages in south India.
Social discipline: Preparedness at the administrative-level is not enough to avert human stampedes. The behaviour of individuals and the crowd plays an important role in developing crowd disturbances as well as accentuating the gravity of an incident. Forced waiting in queues for long hours, loss of individual physical space, seeing free movement of VIPs when others are in queue and intentional acts may negatively influence the crowd. Individuals in the crowd must be aware of the physical and environmental conditions of the gathering site. A basic understanding of individual safety and risk of human stampedes must be developed among people planning to attend a mass gathering event.
Need of disaster preparedness: What are preparedness measures for ensuring safety at mass gathering events? Event organisers have primary responsibility in ensuring safety of a mass gathering event. Effective planning is required at the administrative-level to coordinate event organisers, service departments and emergency response agencies.
District Disaster Management Authorities chaired by the District Collectors can play a significant role in ensuring safety of religious mass gatherings. The National Disaster Management Authority has introduced a guideline for crowd management at places of mass gatherings. In addition to that, state specific guidelines have been issued by states like Kerala and Gujarat.
Guidelines are yet to find their significance among administrators and event organisers. Since they are guidelines, recommendations may not penetrate the grassroots. The essence of the guideline needs to be designated as a legal obligation under national disaster management act, to be followed by event organisers while organising major mass gatherings. It will bring standardisation of minimum safety requirements to all mass gathering events in the country.
Crowd disasters are human-induced and it could be averted by implementing sufficient disaster preparedness measures. Learning lessons from previous incidences, contextualisation and effective contingency planning should become an essential component of all mass gatherings. Any lapse in implementing preparedness measures may lead to extreme tragedies. Event organisers, administration, local bodies and emergency response departments should be equipped to follow Standard Operating Procedures of mass gathering emergency management.
Identifying risks, expecting the worst case scenario, subsequent planning and implementation of suitable mitigation measures would improve the response capabilities of administration and event organisers for the safe conduct of mass gathering events.
(The author is assistant professor, Institute of Land and Disaster Management, Government of Kerala. He can be reached at email@example.com)