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Tragedy strikes again as lessons not learnt

Tragedy strikes again as lessons not learnt
Highlights

Tragedy Strikes Again As Lessons Not Learnt. The Rajahmundry stampede is yet another grim reminder of failure of governance and a callous attitude of people in power to disaster preparedness.

The Rajahmundry stampede is yet another grim reminder of failure of governance and a callous attitude of people in power to disaster preparedness. Unfortunately, despite many such incidents earlier, the authorities concerned seem to be still indifferent to the safety of people. Initial reports suggest that the stampede in Andhra Pradesh Pushkaralu was the result of official failure to anticipate that a large crowd would turn out at that particular ghat as well as lack of arrangements to regulate the flow of pilgrims.

Crowd management is considered as one of the disaster management strategies. The official reviews prior to the commencement of the holy pushkaralu mainly concentrated on physical arrangements for pilgrims, but there was no serious review of disaster preparedness. Training of local police and revenue officials seems to have not been taken up in right earnest, leading to the tragic loss of life.

A study conducted by Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, (IIM-A) and commissioned by National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), made several suggestions for managing crowds to avoid stampede in places of mass gathering. The study recommended deployment of snake line approach, having alternative routes for releasing excessive crowd pressure and plans to take care of VIP visitors. Ensure emergency exits should be not barricaded, blocked or otherwise inaccessible. Generators, distribution boxes, circuit-breakers should be kept in an isolated place away from mischievous crowd elements. There should be adequate fencing; security and electrical appliances should be protected from weather. These measures would avoid electric short circuits and electricity-induced fire accidents.

Fuels like diesel should be safely stored and clearly labeled. Electrical cables and wires should not be allowed to obstruct crowd movement. An adequate number of fire extinguishers should be kept in place at critical control points. Such measures as suggested by the NDMA-sponsored IIMA study would not only help in preventing fire accidents during mass gatherings but even avoid possible stampede when fire accident occurs.

Such crowd management strategies should be part of a disaster management effort during such mass gatherings. The NDMA calls for a continuous and integrated process of planning, organising, coordinating and implementing measures that are necessary to prevent a disaster like stampede, too.

Experience suggest that incidents like stampedes can occur at any place of mass gathering like religious places, railway stations , social, political, sports events etc. Therefore, an integrated and a structured approach is needed for crowd management. A body of literature is already available on the strategies for crowd management.

As NDMA pointed out, a crowd disaster like that of Rajahmundry stampede is a man-made disaster which can be completely prevented with proactive planning and flawless execution by dedicated groups of well-trained personnel.

The installation of public address system to communicate with surging crowds is an essential element of crowd management. It should also be ensured that such facility is not misused. For instance, the public address system which was installed during Mahamaham festival at Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu (which witnessed a stampede in 1992) was used for broadcasting the achievements of the Chief Minister and providing a running commentary on her arrival, revealed the inquiry by a PUCL fact-finding committee.

‘Managing crowd at events and venues of mass gathering,’ the NDMA guide for State government, local authorities, administrators and organisers provides a lucid list of causes and triggers for crowd-related disasters. These were compiled from reports of various inquiry commissions and news reports on such incidents. The causes include structural causes like collapse of barricades, bamboo railings, wire fence, and other barriers, temporary structures etc. Panic triggered by rumours often cause stampedes. Barriers on the way like difficult terrain, muddy roads, and narrow streets can also cause stampedes.

The other factors that can lead to stampede include more than anticipated crowd, underestimation of staffing services leading to inadequate deployment of the same, people allowed in excess of holding capacity, lack of access control, callous indifference in regulating traffic, lack of adequate and strong railings to marshal the crowds. A simple reading of these measures suggested in the NDMA guide would have ensured proper arrangements at the incident site. The authorities concerned should be aware of crowd behavior Such aspects of crowd behavior include a wild rush to force their way , a collision between a large inward flows and outward flows, sudden flow of people in reverse direction.etc.

Inadequate deployment of security personnel, lack of proper briefing to them before deployment, and failure to implement scientific crowd management practices would result in stampede. Lack of CCTV surveillance system to monitor and regulate flow of people, and lack of training to the deployed personnel in crowd management further worsen the situation. Lack of road opening parties to secure the route of pilgrimage, lack of coordination between various stakeholders are also cited as triggers for stampedes in general.

Event managers need to have a clear idea of factors that contribute to overcrowding so that regulatory measures can be initiated. Research has found several such factors which result in overcrowding. They include panic or excitement in the people assembled, overreaction by the controlling authorities, presence of miscreant elements within the crowd, spread of false information, rapid ingress or egress, constraints of physical space, presence of celebrities, etc. In fact, religious congregations are more vulnerable to crowd disasters.

Many aforementioned factors that lead to stampedes may or may not be applicable in the case of Rajahmundry tragedy. But, it‘s certainly unfortunate that sufficient measures were not taken despite a body of literature available on crowd management. The authorities should have proper assessment of arrival of crowd. A simple demand and supply principle would go a long way in managing crowds. Assessment should be based on historical numbers, timings of mass transport like trains, significance of particular moment, growing popularity of the event etc., which determine the flow of crowd.

A proper appreciation of these factors can help in proper assessment of arrivals so that arrangements can be made for exit of the people. The crowd holding capacity of each venue like Pushkarghat should be evaluated. Systems concerned with the arrivals and flow of people have to share information on real-time basis. For instance, there should be effective coordination among railways, RTC authorities, various private tour operators, security personnel, traffic police etc., so that the inward and outward flow of people can be regulated. Even the holding capacity of the passage to Pushkarghats should also be evaluated.

Eye witness accounts claim that a number of trains arrived at the same time suddenly increasing the flow of people to the ghats. The passage to the fateful ghat is also very narrow. Sufficient personnel to regulate the crowds were also not present, claims the eye witness accounts. Proper escape routes were not available at the incident place.

There are also reports that even water was not available to help suffocating victims. Emergency medical facilities should be timely available to at least prevent deaths. Research has shown that compressive asphyxia is the main cause of death in stampedes. Medical facilities to assist in such situation should be put in place in adequate number.

A prima facie analysis of the Kotagummam ghat tragedy reveals a failure in crowd management. The distance between the Godavari station and this ghat is short. Thereby a large number of pilgrims thronged this particular ghat to have a holy dip. The passage from the station to the ghat is narrow with a very less crowd holding capacity. As many VIPs including the Chief Minister had holy dip here, the pilgrims also felt it as most auspicious. Authorities failed in diverting the pilgrims to other ghats especially the distant ones so that crowd density would have been less.

A large number of pilgrims were earlier held up to facilitate VIPs. The held crowds were suddenly released after the VIPs had left the ghat. A large congregation of pilgrims and their sudden movement towards the ghat, which is at a short distance from the railway station, that too passing through narrow road, caused overcrowding leading to stampede. The government and civil society groups should conduct a thorough investigation to identify the causes for this pushkara tragedy. Hope that the recommendations emerging out of the inquiry of this incident would not be consigned to records only.

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