Allahabad and Kumbh: Where governance and illiteracy meet

Governance is a recently invented term. It was coined by Plato and reinvented by Harlan Cleveland monographs and acquired solidity in World Bank monographs. There is arrogance about its use. World Bank agencies and nation states talk about governance. Multinationals hold seminars on governance, but few look at pilgrimages and sacred complexes as sites for governance.

It is only recently that Harvard University realized what Hindu pilgrims and Mahatma Gandhi knew so well. They emphasized that the Kumbh mela is not merely a fair or festival. It deals with governance of instant cities. As Harvard’s Tarun Khanna points out the Kumbh is a city in temporary time where in 5 weeks a lazy city on the river banks burgeons into a city of approximately 100 million people. It is a fantastic city as a wonderful swarm, only the swarm is not of insects and birds, but of people as pilgrims.

The crowds at the Kumbh have been handled peacefully despite the crowds. PTI

The crowds at the Kumbh have been handled peacefully despite the crowds. PTI

Kumbh becomes one of the great metropolises of modern life. Kumbh has never received attention from  a great urban sociologist of the city or a historian of governance. The mind boggles at the logistics of what is required. It is an experiment in urban planning, law and order and epidemiology. A whole administration has to plan in advance and think on its feet. The numbers of visitors who attend the Kumbh mela number 80-90 million. There has never been a census of the Kumbh as a religious city. Such a population requires 80 million litres of drinking water, 25,000 tonnes of rice, 35,000 toilets and a 100 hundred-bed hospitals and 12 smaller health care centers. A local government official adds that the food at Kumbh is sold at prices below the poverty line. Yet few Indians realize that Kumbh is one of the greatest cities we have created. Enacting the dance of the cosmos, Kumbh should make us proud and, in fact, helps us understand that we are masters of governance.

Yet there is an irony. Indians are civic masters at Kumbh and yet seen illiterate outside of it. Think of the accident that happened at Allahabad railway station. The station was far from Kumbh and did not come under the mela’s jurisdiction. The railways were in charge. There was a stampede on that day as the railways ran only seventy five of 150 trains promised earlier. A huge upsurge of population was created. The railway station was like a river overflowing its banks with the platforms packed with people. The over bridge was teeming with pilgrims. The rail authorities churned the hornet nest with a knee jerk lathi charge, and over 36 people died in the ensuing stampede. The railway station has blocked exit roads and over 6,000 people were trapped in the over bridge. Bodies lay unattended for over 3 hours. The senior UP minster Azam Khan resigned owning moral responsibility for the stampede.

The irony is stark. The difference in the handling of the two events is almost unbelievable. One is master piece of governance; the other is a classic case of governmental illiteracy. An Indian journalist confronting the two events will have to ask questions different from the Harvard team. The Harvard team is here to study the Kumbh as a miracle of crowd control, urban complexity and metropolitan behavior. As its blog claims, it will study everything from PH behavior, the quantity of toilets, the nature of information flow. It will eventually produce a classic on the temporary city.

The stampede at Allahabad station is a symbol of mishandling crowds. AP

The stampede at Allahabad station is a symbol of mishandling crowds. AP

But Indians confronted with the idiocy of the stampede will have to ask how do the two events co-exist? How is it Indians can produce a miracle of governance side by side with an illiteracy of civic handling. Harvard Business School claims it is here to ask what the Kumbh can teach it about the real estate, infrastructure, civilization and sustainability. A sociologist of our cites will have to ask why we create next to it a complex of illiteracy, bad planning, an indifference to crowds and a complete failure of responsibility. Kumbh and Allahabad railway station appear to be two separate worlds juxtaposed spatially in a world called Uttar Pradesh.

The juxtaposition of the two events almost acquires the status of a fable. Kumbh will join the annals of the great cities of the world and become classic in religious and urban terms. The railway stampede will pass away as a minor event, shrugged off by all but the survivors. Harvard and America will learn from Kumbh but India never seems to learn from its accidents and disasters. We adore a cosmic churning of life and time at Kumbh but are illiterate about the basics of urban planning outside it. Our IIM and urban planning institutes will invite Diana Eck and Tarun Khanna to bloat the Indian ego and celebrate our civilizational competence. No one in India will ask could the stampede have been prevented. Our urbanlogits will envy the Harvard study but look with an almost cosmic indifference to the loss of everyday life in modern India. Indian lives and Indian experiments seem cheap unless Harvard valorizes them.

There is a sadness here which demands more than a religious understanding. In fact it raises questions. Why is it that religious events work like clockwork while other acts of crowd management bring out the indifference in us? The railway accident at Allahabad station will be dismissed as foot note but it raises more questions about governance in India than the success of the Kumbh. The Indian mindset sadly produces both the cosmic intensity of the kumbh and the indifference of the Allahabad station.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist