The stampede on the inaugural day of the Godavari Pushkaralu in Rajahmundry on Wednesday was an avoidable tragedy, as most such incidents are. Poor crowd management and insufficient public communication led to the chaos at the ghat that caused 29 deaths, mostly of elderly women. There is a sense of deja vu, since these very reasons have caused similar tragedies in the past. Since ours is a land of endless festivals, the authorities should take note of what went wrong and prevent future tragedies.
The Andhra Pradesh government had invested a lot in the festival to showcase the Godavari as a destination for pilgrims and tourists. Yet, the authorities underestimated the number of people likely to gather for the 12-day festival which, like the Maha Kumbh, is held every 12 years. Too many people had gathered at one ghat, where pilgrim movement was affected by the presence of VIPs. The authorities had readied many ghats for the festival but failed to inform the pilgrims. And, when they started to gather, they could not be redirected to other areas. Police deployment proved insufficient, particularly because the state chief minister had also arrived to take a dip.
Pilgrimages are becoming spectacles rather than the quiet, reflective journeys they are meant to be. Politics and commerce have transformed them into shows of muscular religiosity. This, perhaps, is a reflection of our times, but should the authorities not pause and think if it is such a great idea to promote pilgrimages, considering the pressure the crowds exert on fragile systems? More subdued support extended to pilgrims, by building the necessary infrastructure, could help to replace religiosity with spirituality. Size is the last thing that ought to matter.