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The Kumbh Mela stampede: disaster preparedness must bridge jurisdictions

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 20 May 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f3254
  1. P Gregg Greenough, assistant professor of medicine, emergency medicine, Harvard Medical School; and fellow, FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard University

Thirty-six people died in February in a stampede when attending the world’s largest gathering. Subsequent analyses show extraordinary planning, but gaps existed between different agencies’ responsibilities, writes P Gregg Greenough

On 10 February 2013 a stampede at a railway station in Allahabad, killed 36 passengers and injured many more. The victims were pilgrims returning from the Kumbh Mela, a 55 day Hindu festival where tens of millions of people congregate once every 12 years at the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna, and (mythical) Saraswati rivers for a dip in the holy waters. Unlike spontaneous mass gatherings, which are inherently conducive to stampedes, the Kumbh Mela stands out as a highly organised, well orchestrated, administrative accomplishment. What makes it less unusual are the unforeseen gaps—forged by jurisdictional blind spots—common to disaster planning everywhere.

The Kumbh Mela is an extraordinary festival: the 58 km2 fairground site becomes a temporary city that arises from the floodplain and is dismantled eight weeks later. Designed to support the million “permanent” residents of the Mela who stay for the entire duration, and more than 80 million travelling pilgrims who enter and leave the festival grounds, this ephemeral megacity maintains distinct urban trappings: electricity, water, sanitation facilities, shelter, hospitals, police, and administrative services. Its temporal administration focuses on the triggers for mass casualties with laser-like insight: nuanced planning begins months in advance and incorporates lessons learnt from past Melas, institutional memory, and longstanding tradition.

For pilgrims, the objective is to bathe as close to the confluence of the three rivers, or Triveni Sangam, as possible. More than 160 …

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