Authorities continue to pass the buck and even blame pilgrims in what clearly appears to be a case of inept handling of the situation by the police and railway officials, reports Sharat Pradhan
Mismanagement by the Allahabad district administration, unnecessary use of force by local police and the unpreparedness of the Railways was primarily responsible for Sunday night’s stampede at the Allahabad railway station which left 36 dead and 30 injured.
The dead include 28 women and a girl child, all from poor families, who had travelled from different parts of the country to take a dip at the holy ‘Sangam’ on Sunday’s ‘Mauni Amavasya’ that was regarded as the most auspicious of the 55-day long Kumbh Mela.
Even as the local administration and the railway authorities were busy trying to pass the buck to each other, eyewitness accounts say that the tragedy occurred mainly due to inept handling by the police and railway officials.
Arrangements looked perfect inside the 59-sq km ‘Kumbh Nagari’ that was host to the three crore people who converged in Allahabad for the holy dips between Saturday evening and Sunday, which marked the span of Mauni Amavasya .
However, what the local administration failed to foresee that the success of the mela was not only about ensuring a smooth sail of the mega event within the boundaries of the mela area.
“It seems the local administration officials did not give any priority to an important aspect; leaving the handling of exit arrangements to the mela administration,” observed a senior professor of the Allahabad University, who happened to be at the railway station when the tragedy occurred.
The railway authorities neither drew an estimation of the crowds nor did they ensure punctuality of the departing trains. This resulted in more and more crowds gathering at the station. The railway station was not geared up to receive the overflowing crowds, which was estimated to have gone beyond 1.5 lakh.
The railway administration or the district authorities had also not made any arrangements for display of information about the availability and departure of trains anywhere along the exit path in the sprawling mela area. Only one electronic display board was
seen at the camp office of the North Central Railway in the vast mela area.
Even though a special budget was allocated to the Railways for improvement of infrastructure and facilities at the railway station, very little work is said to have been done. The staircases of the foot over bridge looked old, worn-out and therefore slippery
at most places.
What made it worse was the inadequate police deployment. While senior superintendent of police Mohit Agrawal was not available for comment, there was a common complaint about his inaccessibility. Far from being a hands-on field officer, he was also known for doing most of the policing from his “computer”.
According to an Allahabad railway official, who did not want to be identified, “If any senior police official had given due consideration to the need for ensuring a smooth exit of millions of people arriving here for Kumbh, this tragedy would not have occurred.”
Seeking to pass the entire blame for the stampede to the cops, he said, “If the cops had avoided using ‘lathis’ on the waiting crowd and instead prevented overcrowding on the foot over bridges, the situation could have been avoided.”
While the police have been denying any “lathi charge”, an eyewitness claimed, “All the trouble began only after a cop started giving lathi blows to people perched on the foot over bridge to make way for people to cross over to the other platform.”
The panic that prevailed at the station after the tragedy broke speaks volumes of the unpreparedness of the police and other authorities. “It took hours before the injured could be transported to the Swaroop Rani Nehru Hospital. While the Railways was ill-equipped with ambulances, the local health authorities failed to ensure timely availability of ambulances to provide relief to the injured.
“Even after the ambulances arrived, there was shortage of stretchers. Dead bodies had to be carried in white-sheets,” remarked Daya Shankar Shukla ‘Sagar’, a senior journalist who reached the spot shortly after news of the stampede broke. “The sheets looked freshly purchased, making me wonder why the official machinery was keen to buy ‘kafan’ instead of arranging for stretchers,” he remarked.
Interestingly, even after the glaring lapses, the authorities were trying to pin the blame on innocent pilgrims, who thronged the railway station only to return to their respective destinations.