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Letter to Harvard: Hope your study of Kumbh helps India too

Dear Team Leader of Harvard University at the Kumbh Mela,

It’s incredibly gratifying to learn that after studying - and continuing to study - our poverty and public health for years and trying to unravel the management genius of our poor dabbawalas in Mumbai, you have set your eyes on the pride of our religious festivals, the Kumbh Mela.

I have learned from your press release that a multi-disciplinary team of 50 people from Harvard university has travelled to Allahabad to “document and analyze the processes involved in the successful functioning of the Kumbh Mela".

After the visit of Mark Twain in the 19th century, I feel your arrival is the next most significant sign of international approval of our eternal art of crowding and praying.

It’s a great honour indeed.

Without being baffled by the sheer spiritual magnetism that attracts a lot of glamorous and ragged caucasians, along with tens of thousands of malnourished Indians, to take a dip in faecal coliform bacteria, I hope you have managed to gather enough data on the environment, infrastructure, economics, governance and public health.

A pilgrim from Kumbh tries to board a train at the Allahabad station. AP.

A pilgrim from Kumbh tries to board a train at the Allahabad station. AP.

I hope your energetic team of researchers (or were they mostly interns in kurta?) have blogged enough about the party before they got back to Cambridge. In the photos that I have seen, they look culturally well-integrated.

I was happy to see that the Indian and international media have done their best to showcase your team’s enthusiasm, and your glory that reflected on us. Some called it a “case study in chaos”, while some thought you were here for market tips. See, we love hype and hyperbole, particularly on our native wisdom.

Seeing a young Aaron running 20 km a day at the Mela, from hospital to hospital, some saw it as public health research. Where else in the world will you get so many sick people that too without a fee for remarkably diverse clinical material? From your mapping of the sick, I can see that you have found something hitherto unknown - a large number of pilgrims are coughing while a number of others have diarrhea.

I also assume that the staff in the 20 makeshift-hospitals have now learned how to write the case records more legibly, if not in Harvard style. Aaron and his friends have been training them hard, haven’t they? These kids are better skilled than our poor old public health workers! Perhaps worse than those in Port-au-Prince.

I hope your “educational tools and resources pertinent to the study of religion, urban design, business, and global health,” and “possible solutions to issues such as the design for disaster and medical response, rapid urbanization, management of public goods and services, communication & connectivity through mobile technology, and health care for large populations inhabiting temporary settlements” that will emerge from your outing at the Kumbh will be released soon.

Since the Mela and a number of unskilled Indians helped you in this endeavour, I hope that these tools will be available to us first, for improving our skills and systems, free of cost. I hope you will not ask for license-fees or royalty, and quote IP laws. I sincerely hope you won’t do what the bio-prospectors have done with our haldi, neem and basmati.

I also hope that you will not tease us with abstracts on the Kumbh deliverance, instead of complete papers, and that you will give reasonably good scholarships/visiting jobs to your Indian collaborators who did the networking and interpreting for you. Please ensure that the kids of the bureaucrats and poverty activists, who did the clearances for you, get at least internships. It will be so exciting to blog and tweet from MA on sub-continental poverty and ill-health. You also know how valuable it is to be cited as co-authors of your papers on us.

Our national government and state governments, particularly some of our restless chief ministers, are at their wits’ end in terms of tools and guides to improve our governance and systems. See, we are a poor country who is erroneously compared with China and we have exhausted all our indigenous knowledge and tools. We will be really excited to receive your advice.

Since you have now diversified your research interests from case-studies and double-blind control trials in poverty and public health using our “populist” social welfare projects to religious congregations, I would like to suggest two more festivals in southern India that might be of interest to you.

The first is Sabarimala, a hill-temple in the Western Ghats of Kerala. Perhaps it doesn’t have the sprawl and tantric allure of Kumbh, but over a period of two months every year, it attracts more people (about 40 million) to conditions of over-crowding, poor sanitation, accidents and deliverance - all in an eco sensitive forest.

I am sure there is a lot that your team can advise us on here. And I am also sure that your interns will find it a great trek. However, this has to be an all-men team. The place is out of bounds for women of menstruating age.

The other place that I guess will benefit from your research and wisdom is the Attukal temple in Thiruvananthapuram. About a million women congregate here in a single hot summer day, wrapped in five-metre-long sarees, and cook a special dish using firewood - all within a radius of a few kilometres. You can read up about this festival on Guinness Book of Records.

Other than all what you have analysed at the Kumbh, here you have a great opportunity for gender studies, women in management and fire-safety. Your analysis of the impeccable record of the festival - which hasn’t seen a single fire accident even when a million women in sarees are playing with it - will be of tremendous value to the fire-safety knowledge of the world.

However, unlike in Sabarimala, here you will have to send an all-woman team because this is an exclusively all-women festival.

By the way, if you haven’t already noticed, we are a billion plus people and crowding is our pastime. Choose any festival, it is unlikely that you don’t have half a million people. For us it is an inevitability based on helpless optimism. Great that you are able to find science and philosophy in our helplessness.

Anyway, it will be exciting to hear from you soonest.

 

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