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Harvard’s next case study: The logistics and economics behind Kumbh Mela, the largest human gathering in history

This week, the city of Allahabad in northern India kicks off the Kumbh Mela, a 48-day Hindu festival that is expected to be the largest human gathering in history. In addition to the more-than 30 million pilgrims descending upon the flood plain of the Yamuna and Ganges rivers, the Kumbh will host a team of Harvard researchers in what is likely the school’s more inter-disciplinary project ever. I will be traveling among them, assisting a team of emergency physicians and praying against stampedes.

The Kumbh Mela, which historically has received little press in the West, takes place every four years, and gains special significance every 12. This year, 2013, will be that 12th year—called the Purna (“complete”) Kumbh and officials expect somewhere between 30 million and 60 million ascetics and pilgrims to travel to holy sites to bathe. It is believed that during this auspicious astrological moment, the waters of the Ganges have the ability to wash away layer upon layer of karmic debt. Some will splash and play in the water like ecstatic children, living on the river bank for a month, while others will perform the perfunctory dip and be on their way.

Behind the pilgrims is another group —one slightly less inclined to enter the murky ganges—who will travel thousands of miles by plane, train and autorickshaw for a very different reason: To answer the question, “How on earth is an event of this size possible?”

To fully grapple with this question, the scale of the Kumbh needs to be put in perspective. Imagine the entire population of Shanghai—about 23 million—camping on a 4×8 kilometer field. Add to that mass of humanity every last man, woman and child in New York City and you’re getting closer to the Kumbh’s expected attendance. But still not quite there. 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.

For hundreds of years, the size of the Kumbh has been of interest primarily to bathing pilgrims and local officials trying to maintain order. But this year it caught the attention of Harvard University, which saw the Kumbh Mela as a unique opportunity to study the formation and inner-workings of a pop-up mega city. Where recently there was nothing but a barren flood plain there will soon be a thriving “city” complete with hospitals, sanitation systems, markets and police. The Kumbh has always operated in this capacity, but for a variety of reasons, the 2013 festival represents a significant shift towards seeing the festival as a seminal academic learning environment.

Harvard’s South Asia Institute, a group that connects all the schools at Harvard for the sake of inter-disciplinary regional projects, sees this as an unprecedented opportunity. The Institute has coordinated 35 students and faculty from four distinct schools to travel to the festival and study everything from water quality to sanitation techniques to health clinic readiness.

Somewhat shockingly, this is a real first for Harvard, which typically operates in a much more siloed fashion. Harvard Business School has its world and the School of Public Health has its, and rarely the twain shall meet.

“This is probably the first time that Harvard is doing something like this, where we’ve pulled together four different disciplines in a way that all faculty and students are going to be together to look at a phenomenon,” says Meena Hewett, associate director of Harvard’s South Asia Institute.

The obvious candidates for a project of this nature are the students and faculties from Harvard’s school of public health. They’ll be there in force, studying health clinic readiness, sanitation and water-borne illnesses. But next to them will be researchers from Harvard’s school of urban design and the business school. One faculty member from Harvard Business School is interested in using the festival to develop one of the school’s famous case studies. They’ll dissect many of the critical questions that the Kumbh organizers have to make in order to keep the event safe, secure and egalitarian. Others will look at the question of how prices within the many Kumbh markets get determined.

For example, since the Kumbh Mela takes place only every 12 years, 2013 marks the first Kumbh which will be criss-crossed with cell phone towers and where a critical mass of people will be using mobile phones. That environment creates a unique opportunity for researchers interested in studying “big data.” They’ll be looking into questions like how anonymized cell phone data can assist in infectious disease mapping.

These questions overlap those being asked by Harvard’s school of urban design, whose researchers will focus more on “the metabolism” of the Kumbh. How are goods being transported? How are they transporting clean drinking water, how are public toilets and cooking areas designed and kept at a distance from one another? On the outside, the overlap between urban design and global health appears painfully obvious, yet research collaborations of this nature are all too rare.

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.

We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com. 

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