The Eknath Shinde-Bharatiya Janata Party government in Maharashtra on Monday faced criticism over the sunstroke-linked death of people at a mega award function in Navi Mumbai, held in an open ground under a scorching sun, with the Opposition demanding a probe into organisation of the programme as the toll rose to 13, while eight patients still remained hospitalised.
While the Congress sought registration of a case of culpable homicide and said the government should quit, the Nationalist Congress Party sought a probe into the tragedy.
Tens of thousands of people had gathered in a 306-acre ground in the Kharghar area in Raigad district on Sunday for presentation of the 'Maharashtra Bhushan' award to spiritual leader and social reformer Appasaheb Dharmadhikari.
The nearest weather station to the spot had recorded a maximum temperature of 38 degrees Celsius.
Eleven people attending the event died due to sunstroke on Sunday, while two patients undergoing treatment succumbed later, taking the toll to 13, officials said on Monday.
The deceased included nine women and four men, while eight people were still undergoing treatment after suffering from sunstroke at the award function, they said.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Chief Minister Eknath Shinde, his deputy Devendra Fadnavis and Union minister Kapil Patil were among those present on the occasion.
Shinde termed the deaths as "very unfortunate" and said the kin of the deceased will be given a compensation of Rs 5 lakh.
Leader of Opposition in the assembly Ajit Pawar sought an inquiry into how the award event was organised during noon time when the temperature was very high.
Pawar visited the MGM Hospital at Kamothe in Navi Mumbai late Sunday night and enquired about the health of people undergoing treatment after suffering from sunstroke.
Talking to reporters, he termed the incident as "most unfortunate" and said the priority was to ensure the patients get well soon.
The NCP leader claimed it was a function of the Maharashtra government.
It is a well known fact that during April-May, day temperature are very high. During these days, temperatures hover around 40 degrees Celsius, Pawar said.
"Hence, it needs to be probed as to who had fixed the noon timing for the award function," the former deputy CM said.
Pawar said the function could have been held in the evening and Union Home Minister Shah could have taken a chopper to reach the venue.
Shah had conferred the state's highest civilian award on Dharmadhikari at the event.
Maharashtra Congress chief Nana Patole said a case of culpable homicide must be registered against the Shinde government for the sunstroke deaths.
"Appasaheb is working for humanity and when someone of his stature is being given an award, it is obvious lakhs of his followers would attend the function. The government knew this but air-conditioned mandap was made only for Union Home Minister Amit Shah, chief minister, deputy CM and other dignitaries," Patole said in Pune.
"This is a state programme. Why was there no covering for the lakhs who attended? This is inhuman and that is why people are seeking that a case of culpable homicide be registered against the Maharashtra government," he added.
The Maharashtra Congress chief said the state government must take responsibility for the deaths and should resign.
NCP Lok Sabha MP Supriya Sule demanded the formation of a panel to probe the incident.
"I express condolences to the bereaved families. Since the temperature is increasing, everybody should be a little sensitive while organising a public event. I heard CM Eknath Shinde announcing an ex-gratia, but I would like to say that the worth of human life cannot be Rs 5 lakh," Sule told reporters.
Asked about the Opposition demand for registration of an offence of culpable homicide for the deaths, she alleged the state government is also insensitive towards farmers, women's safety, and damage caused by unseasonal rains.
"This is a tragic incident and it was a black day for the state. The state government should form a (probe) committee. It was the state government that had invited people who follow Appasaheb Dharamadhikari (the recipient of the Maharashtra Bhushan award) for the function, so the state should explain," Sule demanded.
Shiv Sena-UBT leader Sanjay Raut blamed the Maharashtra government for the tragedy and claimed politics prevailed over the convenience of people.
Speaking to reporters in Mumbai, Raut said, The Maharashtra Bhushan award function could have been held in the evening, but Union minister Amit Shah had no free time. Thus, the programme was held during the day time and people got exposed to the scorching heat and sunlight."
"Politics behind the award prevailed over people's convenience," the Rajya Sabha member said.
The programme got stretched too long and people fell sick. A few of them even died because of it. The people who attended the event had come for Appasaheb Dharmadhikari and not for any other politician present on the stage, Raut said.
The Shiv Sena-UBT spokesperson said there have been similar incidents in the past and the state should have learnt some lessons from them before organising such events.
Many of followers of Shree Parivar (Dharmadhikari's organisation) had reached the venue on Friday and stayed there till the function concluded at around 1.30 pm on Sunday.
Union Home Minister Shah on Monday expressed grief over the tragedy.
"The death of people who attended yesterday's Maharashtra Bhushan award function has deeply saddened me. I express my condolences to the families of the deceased. I pray for the recovery of those who are currently being treated, Shah tweeted.
The tragedy has evoked strong reactions from a cross-section of Mumbaikars too, who on Monday said the state government should have organised it in the evening considering the stifling April heat or should have erected temporary roofs for shade
Mumbai's summer has become unbearable and it is tough to sit in the open for five minutes, but here people were made to sit for hours without shade, which was a massive mistake that proved costly, Andheri resident Gurucharan Malhotra said.
"On one hand, the government is taking about a rise in COVID-19 cases and is urging people to wear masks. On the other hand, the government itself goes ahead and organises an event at such a massive scale without adequate arrangements," Malhotra pointed out.
Labour union leader Shrirang Barge said the state government would have known Dharmadhikari has a massive following and that the event would have attracted several lakh people, so why were arrangements for water, shade etc, missing.
A doctor who did not wish to be named said it was very insensitive of dignitaries, including ministers and bureaucrats, to sit on the dais or the front rows, which were covered, while letting lakhs of people get distressed by the unbearable heat.
"They should have held the function in the evening. While it may vary from person to person, but most people sitting in such heat for one to two hours may suffer sunstroke. In sunstroke, the water level in the body goes down along with blood glucose, sodium electrolyte and disruption in other chemicals," the doctor said.
A heat stroke can prove fatal in case of senior citizens, children and persons with comorbidities, he added.
Several people took to social media to vent their anger at the Maharashtra government for the deaths.
"A nation's HM, a state CM, Dy-CM, a social worker & all their offices put together could not foresee the hot weather and summer season, missed the signs of heatwave across the country and make basic arrangements for their people, then how do I trust them to run my state & nation!, tweeted netizen Akansha Mahapatra.
Netizen Saiyed Raavi Abbas, a criminal lawyer and researcher as per his Twitter bio, said giving away compensation after such deaths was no justice and sought that the organisers be jailed for negligence.
Another Twitter used said "there is no need to investigate, the entire responsibility for what happened during the MaharashtraBhushan event lies with @CMOMaharashtra @mieknathshinde @Dev_Fadnavis for poor planning and lack or arrangements knowing the weather conditions".
At the sprawling venue, some people complained of dizziness and other health complications. Some also fainted at the ground. They were initially treated at make shift medical facilities and later rushed to hospitals.
Dharmadhikari has a massive following in the state due to his tree plantation drives, blood donation and medical camps as well as de-addiction work in tribal areas.
The Maharashtra Bhushan is the state's top civilian award given to people for their contribution towards the welfare of society.