Twenty seven pilgrims, 23 of them women, died in a stampede on Tuesday on the banks of the Godavari river in Andhra Pradesh on the first day of a major religious festival Godavari Pushkaram.
Pilgrims surged towards one of the gates that allows access to the river banks and a group of women slipped causing the stampede, said officials.
The incident took place between 7.30 am and 8 am on the opening day of the 12-day event after gates were opened for people to take holy dip in the Godavari river.
“We have received crowd of more than the capacity of the ghat which is about 15,000 whereas we today had about 50,000 outside the ghat. There was pushing and pulling between the crowd coming out of the Ghat and those entering,” East Godavari Collector Arun Kumar said.
The stampede happened soon after Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu and his family members left the place after taking holy dip in the river.
Out of several Pushkar Ghats in the East Godavari district, people in particular had thronged in tens of thousands to this place, apparently taken in by publicity blitzkrieg that it is the “most holiest" among them, officials said.
They said that Rajahmundry town was highlighted in all advertisements on Pushkaram, while other areas where the river flows were reportedly not given “due importance” leading to people converging here, largely giving a go-bye to other ghats.
Officials also said the government setting a Muhurtham (auspicious time) at 6.26 am on Tuesday for the commencement of Pushkaram prompted people to reach the spot at this hour to take a dip.
Andhra Pradesh DGP, J V Ramudu, said 27 people, including 23 women, lost their lives in the incident which officials said also left 25-30 people injured.
According to officials, the women were in the age group of 50-60. Most of the victims had been waiting since early hours.
“Some of them were also tired as they had travelled long distances to reach here and there is also a possibility they might have died due to suffocation,” Rajahmundry Sub-Collector Vijay Ramaraju said.
“There was a sudden rush on this particular ghat, despite several ghats being earmarked for the convenience of the devotees within the vicinity. It may be that they had a feeling that this particular ghat (Pushkar ghat where the incident happened) is the holy one,” DGP Ramudu said, adding, there was a lot of jostling and pushing among the large crowd.
A devotee, who is yet to recover from the shock of the death of his wife and mother in the tragedy, said police personnel had not been deployed in sufficient numbers to control the crowd.
He said most areas of the ghat where the stampede took place were closed for about two hours to facilitate VIPs including the chief minister to take a dip in the river.
Lamenting the death of her mother Vijayalakshmi, a woman from Visakhapatnam said there was a mad rush and even before they realised what was happening, “we were overpowered by the surging crowd”.
Many pilgrims also complained that gates were not opened to enter the ghat which led to the stampede and that drinking water was not available for those who were in the queues.
The CM termed the incident as “very unfortunate and shocking”.
“I have come here many times and tried to ensure that the event is held smoothly. But some problems cropped up in execution,” Naidu said, adding, an inquiry would be conducted.
Condoling the deaths, he announced an ex-gratia of Rs 10 lakh per family of the deceased.
Governor E S L Narasimhan, who spoke to Naidu, too conveyed his condolences to the bereaved families and appealed to the pilgrims to maintain peace and tranquility and ensure that the holy dip is taken in an orderly manner.
Slamming the AP government, former Union Minister Chiranjeevi said Naidu claimed to have made grand arrangements, but it all came to nought.
YSR Congress Party President Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy blamed AP Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu for the stampede at the Pushkar ghat and said that he should quit on moral grounds taking full responsibility for the incident.
“The Saraswathi ghat was reserved for VIPs but Chandrababu Naidu opted to offer puja at the main Pushkar ghat and it was blocked for two-and-a-half hours for the devotees.
“When the barricades were removed, there was sudden surge as the devotees were waiting for long,” he alleged.
He said there was no need for Chandrababu Naidu to be at the Pushkar ghat, which is meant for general public, as separate arrangements were made at the Saraswathi ghat for the VIPs. “For the sake of publicity or whatever, he opted to offer puja at the main ghat which is meant for general public,” Reddy claimed.
With the CM at the main ghat, officials became over cautious and blocked all the ways as devotees, who came from distant places, started to became restless, he claimed.
Once the barricades were opened, the devotees rushed in which resulted in a stampede, Reddy said.
“The ordering of a judicial inquiry is just an eye wash. You cannot bring the visiting devotees as witnesses. The CM should own responsibility and quit,” he said.