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Allahabad tragedy: Is ticketless travel to blame for the stampede?

“According to TV reports a stampede at the Allahabad railway station triggered by the collapse of a railing of an overbridge has led to many people getting injured and deaths. CNN-IBN reports that at least 36 people were killed and 30 were injured in the incident. Lakhs of people were on their way back from Allahabad after the Maha Kumbh Mela. NDTV reports that there is only one doctor at the station and that relatives are complaining that authorities reacted to the situation only two hours after the collapse,” said our report this morning.

The simple truth is that the scale of the Kumbh Mela has been well known; the railways have clearly failed to gear up to the demands.

Because all the logistics connected to the Kumbh serve up mind-boggling numbers, Harvard will study “The logistics and economics behind Kumbh Mela, the largest human gathering in history,says Quartz.

Some of the “known” knowns in the Quartz article:

Officials expect somewhere between 30 million and 60 million ascetics and pilgrims to travel to holy sites to bathe.

Imagine the entire population of Shanghai—about 23 million—camping on a 4×8 kilometer field.

AP

A woman weeps as she and other family members mourn next to the body of a relative who was killed in a stampede on a railway platform at the main railway station in Allahabad. AP

The area of the mela is also on the rise: from 1,495.31 hectare and 11 sectors in 2001 to 1936.56 hectare and 14 sectors in 2013. That’s about 4,784 acres of land – about the size of Madrid’s famous Casa de Campo park.

Why is Harvard studying the Kumbh? “The hope is that by studying a pop-up mega-city, researchers would learn lessons applicable to a wide range of mass gathering events, from refugee camps to festivals like Burning Man. How do people move en masse? How can the spread of disease be kept in check using minimal technology? The questions aren’t new, but by bringing four major disciplines under one tent—literally—Harvard is creating a new strain of dialogue, one which just might be able to keep up with the crush of the crowd,” says Quartz.

“How do people move en masse,” Harvard wants to know. The answer came yesterday: very badly. Many die, many are injured.

What Harvard needs to understand is that, over a period of time, there has been an absolute collapse of discipline and the rule of law as far as the railways is concerned. Most trains allow passengers with a legal valid ticket (but without a reservation) to board trains and travel in what is called the ‘unreserved’ compartment. With the demand for such accommodation far outstripping the supply, it has become common practice for those without reservations boarding the ‘reserved’ compartments, with the railway authorities looking on helplessly as they’re startlingly outnumbered.

This morning, speaking to media in the wake of the tragedy, Bansal said that arrangements had been made at Allahabad and that things had been proceeding according to plan, until the stampede had occurred.

However he admitted that there was no provision to ferry away every one of the persons who had gathered at the Allahabad railway station. "Even right now, there is too much rush at Allahabad station", he said.

That’s an admission of failure. How could they not anticipate the demand when the dates of the Kumbh have been known almost – without exaggeration – for thousands of years? This time, there was a significant change in the magnitude of passengers with the capacity not growing in the same ratio.

To most commuters who landed up at Allahabad station to catch a train back home, the day would have seemed like any other – too many people and too few seats and berths. And they would have stayed at the station as they would have on any other day, and jumped on to the first available train, whether they had a reserved seat, just a ticket or no ticket at all.

After all, thanks to the explosion of demand and the helplessness of railway staff, getting on to the train, whatever the credentials or lack of credentials, has become the birthright of all Indians.

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