How the deadly stampede outside the Kumbh Mela could have been avoided

A man weeps as he holds his wife, among the dozens dead in a stampede in Allahabad, India, the site of a religious festival.
A man weeps as he holds his wife, among the dozens dead in a stampede in Allahabad, India, the site of a religious festival.
Image: AP Photo/Kevin Frayer
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A tragic stampede at a rail station killed 36 people and injured many more yesterday in the city of Allahabad in central India. They were pilgrims journeying home from the Hindu mega festival known as the Kumbh Mela, believed to be the largest human gathering in history.

This morning, I stood on the footbridge where the incident happened trying to piece together why it occurred and how it could have been avoided. While early reports claimed that the bridge had collapsed, the footbridge was perfectly in intact. The problem wasn’t infrastructure. The crowds also weren’t a surprise, this being the most auspicious day of the 55-day festival. Officials fully expected 30 million people to attend the event, take a ceremonial dip in the Ganges, and then go home, many by rail. Hundreds of additional trains had been scheduled for just this occasion. To be sure, there have been fatalities at the Kumbh Mela before.

But how could this stampede have been avoided? Based on the observations made by our research team from the Harvard School of Public Health, there are at least five simple ways that Kumbh organizers can decrease the chance of a repeat event without laying a single concrete block of new infrastructure.

Regulate crowds earlier
The first time that crowds moving through the narrow streets of Allahabad were given any directions was at the entrance to the rail station itself. By anticipating the surge and stationing traffic coordinators along the well-worn path, rail officials could have gotten an earlier estimate of crowd numbers and guided people accordingly.

Ticket holders only
As our team quickly discovered, you didn’t need to flash a ticket to get into the Allahabad rail station, or even get onto the platform. This is for the simple fact that unreserved seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis. These unreserved cars are packed dangerously full, at two or three times safe capacity. By insisting that only ticketed passengers entered the station, officials could monitor crowds and keep the population to more manageable numbers. By having more reserved seats, the station would cut down on the dangerously frantic scramble that goes on at each new train’s arrival.

More conversations
When local authorities plan the Kumbh—no small feat given that it’s the world’s largest temporary city—they bring together stakeholders from more than a dozen key arenas, from water to sanitation to security. This committee of heavy hitters met about five times in the runup to this year’s Kumbh. However, the excellent crowd control techniques deployed at the festival itself (like queuing barricades and watchtowers) didn’t make it to the nearby rail station, suggesting that the event would have benefited from more cross-disciplinary conversations. Had planners taken a bigger picture perspective, they might have tracked the path the pilgrims would take between sectors and detected choke points.

Basic line enforcement
By the time we arrived on the scene the morning after the stampede, local officials were strictly enforcing line activity—two by two with unidirectional traffic flow. While police did attempt to keep these lines in order the night of the event, it was too little, too late. Given that the crowd surges were well anticipated, line enforcement could have been ramped up proportionately with a clear strategy in place for the obvious contingencies. Rather than having a few police officers nervously waving bamboo batons and shouting at the masses, volunteers from the Kumbh could have been dressed in bright vests and lined along the path. They would keep the pilgrims informed and in check without overburdening the police. Evidence of this level of orderliness is immediately on display at the Kumbh itself, where tens of thousands of pilgrims are lined up daily in tight orderly rows to receive communal meals.

A little tech goes a long way
The land area of the Kumbh is immense and communication poses a range of challenges. And yet, for as wired as India is, there were few phones and handheld radios on display at the festival. A proliferation of cheap, simple Walkie Talkies coordinated by a communication command center would have given rail officials a much earlier warning that crowds were reaching dangerous levels. In addition, if rail attendants on the platforms and foot bridges been able to communicate more seamlessly, traffic could have been diverted to an alternate station entrance.

As I mounted the stairs to reach the platform where nearly 40 people had been crushed to death just hours before, I saw a pile of shoes that seemed to have been tossed over the railing. By their positioning, these most likely belonged to the deceased. But besides these jettisoned relics, there was no sign whatsoever that a tragedy had struck so recently. No plaques, no pictures; just streams of passengers moving on with their lives. My colleague from Mumbai told me this trait—promoted publicly as “resilience”—is frequently seen in India and was on display after the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008. Twelve hours after the bombings, most of life had gone back to business as usual. But this time, this apparent stoicism feels like a step in the wrong direction. The obvious lack of pause seems to ignore the dead—and makes it more difficult for authorities to remember the past and learn from mistakes.

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See our previous coverage of the Kumbh Mela: