Relatives search for dead after stampede at Hindu festival

Thirty-six pilgrims crushed to death as 30 million gather for India's Kumbh Mela; organiser quits as police tactics criticised

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 February, 2013, 7:01am

Anxious relatives searched for missing family members in northern India on Sunday after a stampede killed 36 people during one of the world's largest religious gatherings, as the emergency services came under fire for their handling of the tragedy.

The chief organiser of India's Kumbh Mela - a Hindu religious festival that occurs every 12 years by the banks of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers - quit.

People thronged to the main hospital in Allahabad to see if relatives were among 36 dead and 30 people injured in Sunday's stampede at the city's train station.

Hindus believe a dip in the sacred waters of the River Ganges cleanses them of their sins. This year's Mela is enormous even by previous standards, with astrologers saying a planetary alignment seen once every 147 years made it particularly auspicious.

Police had been stretched in controlling vast crowds as they peaked on Sunday, with officials saying the numbers passed the 30 million mark by the evening.

After the state government ordered an investigation into the tragedy, one of the driving forces behind the festival said he was resigning as a matter of honour.

"I have resigned as the chairman of the festival committee," said Mohammad Azam Khan, who is also a cabinet minister in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

"Although the stampede happened beyond the scope of my jurisdiction, I am deeply disturbed and step down on moral grounds," he said.

I saw the police pushing the crowd and they were using the baton and beating the pilgrims

The stampede was set off by railway delays, shoddy infrastructure and overcrowding, several witnesses said. Train service was severely delayed during the early evening, they said, leaving more and more passengers stranded in the small station.

While the federal government insisted the tragedy was due to the sheer numbers attending the gathering, witnesses also faulted heavy-handed police.

"I saw the police pushing the crowd and they were using the baton and beating the pilgrims. Medical help did not arrive for nearly two hours," said Abhijit Das, a 29-year-old pilgrim from West Bengal.

Among the victims was an eight-year-old girl called Muskaan. Her distraught parents said she had died while waiting nearly two hours for help.

"Our daughter still had a pulse. Had the doctors reached in time she would have been saved, but she died before our eyes," Bedi Lal, the child's father, said.

Apart from Muskaan, the dead comprised 26 women and nine men.

Death and loss have long been associated with the Kumbh Mela. Deadly stampedes occurred at the Allahabad pilgrimage in 1840, 1906, 1954 and 1986.

About 80 million pilgrims are expected at some point in the Kumbh Mela's 55-day run. By comparison, 3.1 million people visited Mecca in Saudi Arabia during last year's annual pilgrimage, the haj.

Many stay in a huge tent city built on river banks that were underwater as recently as October. Its inhabitants have access to drinking water, public toilets, good health care and consistent electricity - none of which India has been able to reliably deliver anywhere else.

The precautions and amenities are intended to prevent the stampedes and plagues that have so worried government officials.

Associated Press, The New York Times, Agence France-Presse