HYDERABAD: Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu’s reputation as an organiser par excellence lies in tatters after Tuesday’s tragedy at the Godavari Pushkarams in Rajahmundry.
It is widely accepted and corroborated by facts on the ground that poor crowd management was responsible for the stampede deaths of 27 people. Pushkarams are the equivalent of the kumbh mela held on the banks of sacred rivers in Haridwar, Allahabad, Ujjain and Nashik. They are held once every 12 years in pursuance of the belief among Hindus that they will be blessed by the Gods if they take a holy dip in the Godavari during the 12-day festival. This year’s festivities, known as Maha Pushkarams, had a special significance as they were happening after 144 years, akin to the Maha Kumbh Mela.
As the Pushkarams are a huge public event, the role of the state and its leaders should normally be to serve as facilitators but not to plunge fully into the festivities themselves. Unfortunately Chandrababu Naidu, who had been planning for the event since December 2014, wasn’t willing to forego the massive publicity that would accompany his own participation in the mega festival. About five crore pilgrims were expected to take a dip in the 270-plus bathing ghats built in East and West Godavari districts of Andhra Pradesh.
Accompanied by immediate family, ministers, MLAs and hangers-on, he walked down the steps of Pushkar ghat and took a dip at 6.26 am, a time declared as auspicious by astrologers. He took a while to return to his bus, change his clothes and drive away from the milling crowds. He was blissfully unaware of the disaster waiting to happen at the entrance of the ghat which he had just exited.
Also, police and party leaders had failed to advise him to perform the ceremonies at Saraswati ghat, which was reserved for VIPs to ensure that pilgrims at Pushkar ghat were not inconvenienced. A restive crowd several thousand strong had been waiting outside the ghat since 3 am waiting for its turn. It began swelling ominously as thousands joined the queue after alighting from the Godavari railway station, a stone’s throw away, and bus terminals nearby.
Tragedy struck as soon as the gates were opened by policemen, untrained in crowd management and lacking instructions from the top cops who were fawning over the Chief Minister and other VIPs. In the melee that ensued, some pilgrims fell down as hundreds began surging through the narrow entrance to the Pushkara ghat. Within minutes, there was a stampede as women and children screamed for help. After twenty minutes of chaos, at least 27 were left dead and 50 others suffered injuries.
No heed to crowd management rules
Naidu had planned for this day for eight months, presiding over innumerable meetings, visiting Rajahmundry several times to supervise the progress of work costing Rs. 1650 crore, pulling up lax officials and also ensuring there was a touch of glitter by organising laser shows and illuminations on the Godavari railway bridge.
In retrospect, it is evident that adequate thought had not been given to the question of how Rajahmundry, a city with 3.5 lakh people, would cope with the daily influx of a population twice its size. The National Disaster Management Authority had issued crowd management guidelines a few months ago but the government did nothing beyond circulating them to senior officials.
The nub of the tragedy lay in not heeding to the commonsensical approach of segregating VIPs and common pilgrims. It was triggered by Naidu spending 90 minutes outside Pushkar ghat when an angry and hungry crowd was waiting its turn. Many in the crowd were fasting and not carrying water as the authorities had prohibited pilgrims from bringing plastic bottles to the bathing ghats.
Poor communication with pilgrims
Chandrababu Naidu is among the most effective political communicators in India, a leader who knows how to use the media, government or private, to put across his message. In Rajahmundry, however, he clearly slipped up. His publicity machinery invited one and all to take the holy dip at the Pushkar ghat and that too at the auspicious time. This created a wrong impression among pilgrims that they must do so only at the Pushkar ghat though religious leaders clearly advised their flock that any place from Triambakeshwar in Maharashtra, where the river originates, to Antarvedi where the Vashishta Godavari – a tributary – ends in the Bay of Bengal, was good enough.
A badly shaken and tearful Naidu ordered a judicial inquiry and announced ex-gratia relief of Rs. 10 lakhs to the kin of the deceased. All this cannot undo the damage caused to his reputation as a meticulous planner who has a hawk’s eye on implementation. His ambition of inviting Narendra Modi to the Pushkarams and showcasing the event to a delegation from Singapore stands diluted. Above all, his ego would have been bruised on seeing how smoothly his Telangana counterpart, K. Chandrasekhara Rao conducted the Pushkarams, though there wasn’t enough water in the Godavari.