Prayagraj: "Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt," wrote the Roman poet Juvanal in the first century, a time when the Circus Maximus in Rome reverberated to the sounds of chariot races and gladiatorial fights. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath clearly believes in that concept.
Only, he is giving the people a 55-day grand mela — the Ardh-Kumbh — that started in Prayagraj (Allahabad to those who are not yet used to the new name) on 15 January. And in an election year, with the BJP and Narendra Modi no longer enjoying the dominance they did in 2014, the Kumbh spectacle is as much political, as religious in nature, with the party’s Hindutva agenda always close to the surface.
“Kumbh is the world’s largest organised gathering of people in any religious event and even UNESCO says this,” says state BJP spokesperson Rakesh Tripathi. “People come from many parts of the world to attend the Kumbh which is why the state government is not leaving any loopholes in the preparations."
That was Tripathi’s justification for the Rs 4,236-crore budget allocated to organise the Kumbh. "If you compare this budget with other global events of the world, like FIFA, you will find it a very small amount," adds Tripathi. Of the Rs 4,236 crore, the Uttar Pradesh government is chipping in with Rs 2,000 crore, and the Centre has allocated Rs 2,200 crore, of which Rs 1,200 crores has already been released. Sources at the state secretariat said that the balance amount will be released soon.
The 2019 Kumbh is also the costliest so far. The Maha Kumbh of 2013, when the state was ruled by Samajwadi Party and led by Akhilesh Yadav, cost Rs 1,300 crore while the 2001 Purna Kumbh Mela had a budget of just Rs 165 crore. A temporary city, including a heliport, has come up near the banks of the Ganges to accommodate the lakhs of pilgrims expected to attend the event. "The government is sending its cabinet ministers to other states to invite people of that state to the mega bathing festival," says Tripathi. "This is the biggest event in the world and our chief minister has personally sent invites to over 192 countries. If you are looking at the budget then you should also look at the importance and bandwidth of this event," he adds.
The massive budget, however, has been criticised by activists. Education activist Samina Bano pointed out, "This figure is 80 percent of Uttar Pradesh's total budget for the health sector."
"It is also approximately 25 percent of the total elementary education budget." She further says while India moved up one spot (to 130) among 189 countries in the latest Human Development Index (HDI) rankings, released by the United Nations Development Programme, Uttar Pradesh slipped to the second last position on HDI rankings within the country.
"While I respect the religious sentiment and the intent behind Kumbh Mela, I wonder what it will take to prioritise spending effectively to improve the deplorable state of education, health and employment in the state that needs immediate attention and intervention."
Tripathi argued that "Kumbh is not an annual event. It comes once in six years and the budget for any sector is issued on a per annum basis. I very well understand that improvement is needed in the health sector but how can we compare it with a religious festival which is a matter of faith for billions of people in India and abroad. Improvements in other sectors will come slowly as the BJP has not even completed two years of government."
Officials involved in the mela preparations said that a major chunk of the budget will be spent on beautification of the river front and parts of the city and developing permanent infrastructure, besides making arrangements for safety and security during the event.
Watch: Kumbh, it's more than a Mela (Part 1), a Firstpost web series
A mela administration manages the temporary district during the 55 day-long fair, which involves use of flammable material such as plywood, bamboos and canvas to set up thousands of tents and other structures at the site. This time, the administration has a fleet of 55 motorbikes fitted with fire fighting equipment (MBFFS), which can reach the corners of the massive tent city faster than a fire tending vehicle, says Pramod Kumar Sharma, chief fire officer (CFO) of Mela administration.
The mela area, spread in over 3,200 acres, is commonly called as tent city. The tent city has been divided into 20 sectors, each sector has two fire stations to tackle emergency fire situations. The government has installed a temporary hi-tech hospital equipped with ICUs and a capacity of 100 beds which has been set up at the mela ground. The OPD will have a capacity of 10,000 patients per day and ambulances with life support system have been kept on standby.
What about the fund for healthcare, education?
Samajwadi Party also emphasised on the need for balance in allocating budgets for the mela and social development. SP spokesman Abdul Hafiz Gandhi, said, "Kumbh is rooted in the cultural and civilisational history of India. It’s a special occasion where crores of people gather together to perform religious rituals,” he said. “A fine balance has to be made in spending of resources. When the state is spending so much, then results should be visible in the shape of some concrete infrastructure development in Prayagraj."
However, the expenditure on Kumbh is not all loss. Rajeev Kumar Maheshwari, head of the applied economics department at the University of Lucknow, said, "Tourism is a big industry and brings a lot of revenue to the state. The government is promoting this religious event like a tourist place and a large number of people are expected. Yes, the budget is big but it’s worth spending if it brings revenue and employment. I don’t see anything wrong in it. The practice of celebrating Kumbh is being followed in India since ages and breaking these customs is impossible," he added.
Congress in-charge of UP media cell Virendra Madan said spending money on a religious event is fine, but somewhere the Yogi Adityanath-led state government is also pushing it's agenda of Hindutva. "Religious events should be kept out of politics and political parties should also refrain from doing so," he said, adding that the Uttar Pradesh government will also try to polarise the coming elections based on the success of this event.
"Before going for this massive budget, the government should have looked back on how kids died due to lack of oxygen and the education and health sector has totally deteriorated in the last few years. The (Congress) party is not against celebrating Kumbh, but simultaneously the government should also spend on other important things," he said. This government has made a mockery of democracy, the Congress leader added.
State government officials and many analysts feel that the Ardh Kumbh this year will most probably set a record in the number of people who attend the event. The total footfall for the Kumbh held in 2013 is said to be between 12 and 15 crore.
This particular version of the Kumbh comes every six years, while the Purna Kumbh is once every 12 years and the Maha Kumbh, once every 144 years. The objection is not on spending taxpayers' money on the mela, but on whether such a large amount was really necessary. "This amount being spent on this festival is too big," said Sharad Patel, who is a social worker. “I personally know that more than 40 percent of the people in UP struggle to get two square meals a day, decent health care and education. I feel this is a misuse of public money."
According to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, 32.8 percent population of Uttar Pradesh lives below poverty line (BPL).
The author is a Lucknow-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com
Updated Date: Jan 15, 2019 18:17:06 IST