The Godavari festival stampede was wholly avoidable, but a worshipful chief minister and his fawning entourage made the tragedy almost inevitable.

BY G B S N P VARMA

PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY NETITARAM SURYA

Tuesday was a clear day, an auspicious day, the beginning of Godavari Pushkaralu. Before long, it echoed to the sound of weeping and mourning as a stampede to reach the river bank at Rajahmundry’s Kotagummam Pushkar Ghat left at least 27 dead by official estimates. Unofficial reports put the dead at 35, many of them from the north coastal districts of Srikakulam, Vijayanagaram, and Vishakhapatnam.

“You’re born somewhere, raised elsewhere and die somewhere else,” says a man on the street. That “somewhere else” was at the Pushkar ghat in  Andhra Pradesh’s East Godavari district. The Pushkaram comes to the Godavari once in 12 years, as it happens in sequence to the 12 sacred rivers.  In the case of the Godavari, it happens when Jupiter enters the sign of Leo. People take a bath, offer food, and worship their ancestors and pray to the divine while contemplating the enduring mystique of the river.

So on July 14, (through to the 26th), the young and old, the able-bodied and the infirm, all came in the pre-dawn hours to the ghats. Down by the riverside, drawn by devotion, people streamed in from three directions and converged at the pushkar ghat in the heart of the city, from 3 a.m. Some had been sitting on the steps of the ghat from the previous night.

The three gates to Kotagummam ghat—even 50 people cannot go through one in normal times without jostling each other—were closed at 5 a.m. for the arrival of chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, according to reports. As dawn was turning into day, more people joined those already barricaded in. At about 6 a.m., the chief minister arrived with his family and entourage and a line of vehicles.  At 6.26 a.m.—the muhurtamthe Kanchi seer Jayendra Saraswathi and the chief minister entered the river for the ritual bath. Local reports say that Naidu continued his worship and offerings to his ancestors from 6.40 a.m to 7.40 a.m.

In the meantime, according to eyewitness accounts, the crowds were surging outside the gates. Bodies pressed against bodies; strained against barricades, a jostling, heaving, seething mass of people straining to get through. A number of special trains had disgorged thousands of people at the nearby Godavari station, who then merged into the crowd. As the minutes dragged by, the heat began to get worse. The rising humidity made many people feel faint and dizzy. There was no retreat even if they wanted.

Couples held hands, husbands held up wives and loved ones, children cried and almost everyone hung on to someone for support while they gasped for breath. There was no water to drink in the vicinity. Some scrambled up the walls of the ghat, some lifting the crying children.

Cameras perched at vantage points beamed pictures of the crowd. After all, this was the spectacle the government wanted—one on which it is claimed to have spent more than Rs 1,500 crore—not the solemn rituals of devotion.

After completing the rituals, Naidu and his family and entourage left. Then, local accounts say the gates opened immediately at 8 a.m.

In the words of a man named Satyanarayana, “the chief minister might as well have been offering pindams to his ancestors and soon-to-die people of his state.”

***

When the gates opened, the surge literally knocked over the people at the front lines and sent them sprawling and crashing on to the cement floor and down the steps at the gate. Some were pushed to the steps of the ghat a few feet away and down into the water. Bodies piled on top of each other, stacked up every which way. Unruly mounds of the dead and injured rose from the ground.

All this was happening before the control room. The trampling went on for more than an hour and the officials simply gave up; they had no clue what to do. According to one man, “Perhaps they thought it would exhaust itself.” It was left to the beleaguered constables at the gate to bring the situation under control. 108 ambulance personnel came to the rescue too.

Some people tried to push back the surge and extricate bodies from the mounds but most of the pilgrims simply stepped or jumped over the bodies, trampling on them in some cases, to reach the river and pray. The dead became stepping stones to the waters.

A few men and women who had retained their composure joined the constables in dragging the bodies out and propping them against a wall nearby.

Just a few feet away, the priests were chanting their mantras, oblivious to the carnage. The smell of death mingled with burning incense, wick-lamps, vermilion, turmeric and flowers.

An eyewitness says, “Already clothes were drenched with sweat. When people tumbled over each other, bodies seemed glued to each other. The rescuers had to literally peel the bodies off each other.”

Ramesh and Sandhya survived to tell their tale. Sandhya, 30, says “We came here because it is very auspicious.” They were near the gate, reaching in the early hours from Surat. Ramesh, 35, is a tailor and the couple have two children. They were holding each other’s hands.

As soon as the gate opened, Sandhya says, “I was knocked down”.  When Ramesh bent down to lift his wife up, he too was pushed down. In a minute at least 20 people piled up on top of Sandhya, pinning her to the floor. “I thought this is my end,” she says.

She remained prone for at least an hour, barely breathing, in pain and in fear, contemplating dying far from home. She screamed but after some time, her screams subsided. Her children coursed through her mind. She felt breathless. Four people on top of her died, she says. Another mound of bodies formed beside her. Of those people, five or six women died. Meanwhile, at least 10 people fell and stacked up on Ramesh’s legs as he too fell down. One leg was broken.

As he sat there in pain, with fallen people on his legs, he screamed and yelled and gestured for help for his wife who was at the bottom of the pile next to him. People, he says, continued trampling fallen bodies, and going to the water.

“You (the government) advertised it in such a big way,” he says in outrage. “You said this came only once in 144 years, something extra special. You advertised that 10-20 lakh people will come to this or that ghat. If you see advertisements, family members feel like coming here for the bath. They would feel that it gives them punya.

“There was no water, no queue, people came in lumps and bunches. If you cannot control and guide one or two lakh people, why publicise like this? Many people died on the spot. There were bodies all around but the priests were chanting and doing puja. Just in front them were dead bodies, some were being placed there and some were being taken away. Still they were doing puja. Television channels were filming the dead bodies nearby.

“Why didn’t police officials and the government stop the rituals for one or two hours, until all the bodies had been taken out and the injured attended to? It’s common sense. ”

After the police and some people extricated him and his wife, there were placed beside a wall. By then, Sandhya was unconscious. He says they remained there for two hours without help.

“Why was there a not a drop of water to drink? Nearby medical personnel—doctors or nurses, I don’t know—were drinking water. I begged them for water, please, for my wife. I pleaded with them that she was unconscious and that I would make her sip some water. They had bottles in their handbags but said there is no water. What I saw was there is no humanity.”

Sandhya’s legs were crushed badly, up to her waist. She says she cannot move. “One woman was lifted from the pile on top of me and people poured water and pressed her chest, and she breathed her last.”

“God’s grace saved us,” Sandhya says. “I don’t know what it would have been like if only one of us went home to our children and our people.”

Shakuntala from Kharagpur, West Bengal, too thanks god for her survival.  She is grateful that she is still a breathing, living person. She and her relatives, 13 in total, reached the gate in the morning. Her leg got caught under a rod near the gate and she fell down.

“All of us were shouting and screaming for help, but people kept on trampling,” says Kasturi, Shakuntala’s niece. At last, four youngsters pulled Shakuntala out.

Kasturi says most people simply stepped on the bodies on their way to the ghat. “There was no help. Later on a few policemen helped us.” Finally, she brought her aunt Shakuntala out to the ambulance.

In the melee, Kasturi had pulled out an old woman from the pile. After she took her aunt to the ambulance, she returned to see her and found her dead.

“I wanted to help because that’s good, that’s punya,” she says, while preparing to leave for home.

Lakshmi came here from Kurla Road in Odisha with her two daughters, Usha Rani, who completed her M.Sc., and Uma Kumari, who is doing her degree. They reached the previous night at about 10 p.m. and were waiting for dawn to break. After the bath and worship, when they reached one of the gates they were simply crushed by the incoming people. Lakshmi fell down but escaped with minor injuries. The daughters haven’t informed their father of what happened, although he was well aware of deaths at the same ghat.

“Since we called him on phone, he is okay. He is glad we are coming home. But we didn’t inform him of ourselves getting crushed. We won’t go anywhere after this,” says Uma. “We thought we would die here.”

***

The tragedy left people in the state and out, especially Rajahmundry, stunned.

Ranga Rao, a native of Rajahmundry, is going round and round the city to “just see and observe.”

He says he likes the chief minister and voted for him but he cannot comprehend why he came to the Pushkar Ghat when the VIP ghat was available.

“Your sixth sense tells you whether you are doing right,” Rao says. “The chief minister and his family, the ministers and police officials: don’t they know people are crowding outside the gate? As a common man, I am helpless and cannot do anything about the tragedy. I just see.”

The tragedy was long in the making. Civil society, voluntary organisations and local journalists have been crying hoarse about the dangers. Netitaram Surya, an eveninger in the city, has been running a column, Kalachakram, for the last 60 days with extremely specific and pointed reportage on the shortcomings and offering suggestions to get things in shape for the Pushkaram. The advice came from people who had experience of the 2003 Pushkaram. At that time they even took care to ensure waiters in the hotels filed their nails because grime and bacteria could spread infectious disease.

They were all ignored.

There was utter lack of coordination among departments. On a recent visit to the city, the chief minister inspected drains, chided officials, and ordered suspension of a sanitary inspector. He pulled up officials after seeing holes dug for putting in barricades.

At one point even the chief minister’s and ministers’ orders were ignored. Local organisations were screaming that iron barricades would cause more trouble than they solve. The chief minister and other ministers, the local reports say, ordered the removal of barricades except at a short distances from the ghats. Local reports suggest that their words went unheeded. Once a place gets too crowded, the barriers press against people at chest level, and cause breathlessness and acute misery. Add more people, heat and humidity, and you have people cursing themselves for being there. In case something happens, they leave no way out.

“We know so many people died,” says Rao, “but there were many who felt they were dead but breathing. They simply felt like they were dying.”

One man says, “Even in our family functions we estimate how many guests will come, and prepare for more because nobody should leave without care and food. What is it with these so-called educated officials, completely lacking in common sense and humanity?”

It indicates a mindset that at the first opportunity turns a place into a fortress, anticipating breaches, holes and attacks. Even the vocabulary is peppered with words like “control”, “attack”, and so on. People don’t matter in this scheme of things; they’re cogs in the machine.

Some people blame the victims for having brought this upon themselves.  “Why should people come to take a dip on the first day at the same ghat,” someone says.

Although there are many others in the city, the Godavari railway station is near the Pushkar Ghat.  People coming here for the first time don’t know other ghats, and follow those who go before them.

There was no one to guide them to other ghats. Moreover, as the crowd was multiplying, the central control room and police officials could have diverted people coming in from three directions, locals say. “They did nothing,” one eyewitness says.

Eyewitness accounts and reports say no government official and police official responded to the ongoing, prolonged tragedy that struck at about 8 a.m. and continued for one hour. Their whole focus was on, the reports say, paving the way for the chief minister’s convoy out of the human crush.

“The crowd could have been managed with 10 constables,” says Undavalli Arun Kumar, former Congress MP from Rajahmundry. “The entire administrative machinery failed. It was all hype to project the image of the chief minister. There was no water, no poor-feeding options were explored, no immediate primary care was available.”

Kumar adds, “What should been joyous celebration became a tragedy. Everything, the crowds and so on, can be anticipated, but not negligence.”

A report in The Times Of India says the National Disaster Management Authority’s (NDMA) guidelines, issued a few months ago, were not followed, especially on free passage of ambulances, medical facilities for treatment, and lack of preparedness in the casualty wards of hospitals.  The report mentions that “giving too much importance to VIPs at mass gatherings is against the NDMA safety norms”.

The report goes on to say: “Do not hesitate to refuse entry to VIPs if assessment indicates that it will add to safety concern.” The guidelines recommend that the movement of VIPs should be on a separate route.

***

The day after the tragedy, authorities addressed the situation and were on their toes to avoid a repeat. They posted more police, especially at the ghats, to diffuse people congregating on the steps and near the water. Senior police officials were assigned to be in charge of the ghats. Communication about the swelling crowds at the ghats and on roads leading to them was improved so that crowds could be diverted to avoid congestion.

Ambulances, which were nowhere in the vicinity on the first day, were stationed nearby. Along the routes to the ghats, drinking water and buttermilk were made available with the help of voluntary organisations. Restrictions have, to some extent, been eased to facilitate the free movement of people.

The East Godavari district collector’s preliminary report, sent to the government and the National Human Rights Commission, squarely blames the police.

The report notes that chief minister Chandrababu Naidu took a ritual bath at 6.26 a.m. and the tragedy occurred around 8.30 am.

“Heavy influx of pilgrims started increasing as time passed, by about 8.30 a.m. Crowd from all directions started breaching the barricades set up for crowd management and attempted to move in various directions. The police couldn’t control this flow. It resulted in a stampede,” it states.

An all-party meet also blamed the government and chief minister for gross negligence. It called on the administration to show the door to incompetent officials.

“This has not happened due to some natural disaster, earthquake or drowning. This has happened due to irresponsible administration and officialdom,” one speaker said.

In the aftermath, the chief minister stays put in the city, personally supervising the arrangements. He is likely to remain here until things get back to normal.

 (G B S N P Varma is a freelance journalist based in Andhra Pradesh.)

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