The Sivakasi Syndrome still stalks India.
The little township which accounts for 95 per cent of India’s consumption of fireworks in a $400 million business was mute witness to its produce causing the deaths of 106 people and rising in the Paravur temple in Kerala. While the investigation will show that many people died in the stampede following the explosion triggered by an errant cracker that set ablaze a mountain of magnesium and potassium nitrate and sulfur.
Of the 750 shops that produce this stuff several are unlicensed. Sivakasi itself was the centre of a blaze in 2012 that caused 70 deaths when an illegal manufacturers inadvertently tinder-boxed his supply.
With no quality control as such, second rate and short fused crackers enter the market. Add to that the chaotic conditions in places of worship, during festivities and religious occasions and death dazzles.
The fact is that we are not practiced in crowd control nor do we police squads trained in this human movement. Crowd control is now science and an art but even though we have over 4000 events across the country annually where over 100,000 people congregate the police are untrained and the facilities are primitive and temporary.
The moment an incident occurs and panic spread the stampede gains momentum. As people scramble to escape the elderly, the young and women lose their balance and pile on each other creating a blockade. This is then trampled upon by others fleeing. If it is dark and there is a fire or smoke, the deaths increase exponentially.
Control behavioral expert based in the USA Daniel Pink has done several studies on ‘EXIT’ systems and his contention is that fear and panic are the two ignitions to disaster. But you cannot do much about human feelings under stress unless you have systems and skill in place. Bamboo pickets don’t work. Much like airports you need ‘only forward’ movement with no ‘back tracking.’
You also need the skills of support teams who know how to spot hazards and start organised evacuation.
It is a lot more than barriers and signage which is largely questionable. One person tripping can start it off. You also need to ensure pre-event fluency in traffic, in arrival and departure and factor in the weather.
Understanding crowd dynamics is not even a starter in our country. The ad hoc kind of bandobust is seen as sufficient.
It is time to create a new para-military force that specializes in crowd control and saves lives.
As things stand today we have had fires and stampedes in events like ‘Make in India’, in temples like Mandar in Maharashtra and Sabrimala and Chamunda Devi.
We have had them in Malls and cinema halls. At fairs like the Kumbh Mela, at railway stations, at Dushhera festivals,even in greeting hallowed personalities like the 18 people who died in a stampede outside the residence of Dawoodi Bohra spiritual leader Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin at Mumbai's Malabar Hill.
And what is done in the aftermath?
Nothing. The chief minister of the affected state expresses shock and horror and promises an ex gratia payment.
The Centre echoes the sadness of the loss. One of the organisers gets arrested and paraded on the telly.
A judge is pulled out retirement and made chairman of a committee whose report, like Father Mackenzie’s sermon, no one will read.
Life goes on.
And this will keep happening because we so completely fail to understand that we have no clue how to handle crowds. Nor do we have stringent rules enforced in fire safety and emergency measures. How many of the men and duty at the temple have done a course in crowd science?
Time to wake up and figure out the stats on stampede deaths are right up there with motorcycle accidents.
Seriously, look how far the world has advanced. The Yale Scientist has this to say: “Dr Paul Torrens, Associate Professor of Geographical Sciences at the University of Maryland, has developed a technology that can help control crowds and avert calamities.
Torrens’s work lies at the forefront of geosimulation, which uses computer programs to model how agents interact with geographic environments. He simulates the behavior of human crowds in various locations such as city streets, movie theaters, and open fields. By recreating these scenarios using computer modeling, Torrens can work with many crowd-related situations that cannot be tested in real life, such as a crowd running away from a burning car or escaping a collapsing building.
Unlike most crowd simulations, in which crowds simply think and move as a single entity, Torrens’s models achieve a new level of realism: He can give individual agents emotions, instincts, and the artificial intelligence to “think” for themselves. This reveals numerous insights about how interactions between individual crowd members affect crowd dynamics."
And we hope to get somewhere with a cop and a lathi.