The Institutionalised Approach to Sustainable Disaster Risk Reduction
Dr Swati Mitra

Eminent Physicist & Cosmologist Prof. Stephen Hawking said, “there is nothing called heaven, it is a fairy tale for people who are afraid of the dark”. It is antithetical to the heart-rending stampede that was easily avoidable yet took place on December 31st in India’s holiest shrine crushing the dreams of 12 lives and injuring more than a dozen. The consolation belief of “sheer blessing” to have been killed in the most wretched manner the world over in any religious places is equally appalling.

Faith and humanity go hand in hand; however, playing with the vulnerable emotions of people is surely not God’s will. It is absolute human callousness of unpreparedness to handle such situations. Let us examine the last time India witnessed stampedes in religious congregations or places that regularly have large numbers of pilgrims every day.

In 2016 10 April, it was at Kollam’s Puttingal Devi Temple incident where more than 100 devotees died and 383 were injured. Aside from this the Kumbha Melas were witnessing similar situations till 2015 when Simhasta Kumbh Mela at Nasik became the game changer in disaster preparedness and the various challenges that are posed during such massive religious congregation. To go into the detail about this case study, the Kumbh Mela celebrated in annual cycle of 12 years has a unique ritual when pilgrims take a dip in the river at the same time on a particular auspicious day. The number of pilgrims is categorised between general population (Indian & Foreigners) & the religious sects. It is to be noted that a staggering 80 lakhs to 1 crore people take the dip during the auspicious time! People from all parts of the world start converging into the city in advance. The challenge in Nasik was that the river was narrow and in the middle of the city!

The local administration and state administration had started routine preparations months earlier, however, in this case there were multiple players like USAID, NGO’s, Civil Society and during that time an innovative approach called “Kumbhathon” was promoted by renowned philanthropist, industrialist Mr. Ratan Tata towards developing an APP that was being developed by Prof. Ramesh Raskar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lab. The APP had information about every minute detail available on the fingertip of everyone in Nasik in their cell phones. For example: if in a particular location there was a medical emergency the administration would immediately know the place and accordingly do the needful. Similarly, if someone was lost in the crowd and s/he approaches any official the details would be flashed in seconds in all mobile phones. Aside from this there was involvement of every single citizen to ensure every challenge was addressed in a consultative process with ground inputs. Net result was for all to see it was India’s first Kumbha Mela without a single casualty. Such was the alacrity that when a pilgrim tried to commit suicide by jumping from the bridge a police officer posted nearby jumped behind him and rescued him!

Let us get back to the unfortunate situation that unfolded at the beginning of the year. The case here is different as compared to the Kumbha Mela reason the Holy Shrine is opened 24 X 7, 365 days and on any given day has pilgrimage of over 25 to 30,000 aside from days like year ending where it goes up to 70,000 pilgrims per day. With the above premise and any other religious place that has comparable situation cues could be taken from the Nasik Kumbh aside from doing the following:-

- Focus on bringing attitudinal changes as every staff is a stakeholder towards ensuring smooth pilgrimage.

- Institutional changes in Disaster Risk Reduction. Administrative changes are a routine affair, however setting up processes and systems ensures system to run on its own with Standard Operating Procedures and Contingency Planning.

- Involve multiple stakeholders as most of the religious places require a humanitarian approach. The crowd that comes here are charged with emotions and need to be managed with a high dosage of common sense.

- The Disaster Management Plan need to be always made in consultation with those working on ground that would help them to relate and make the document implementable.

- An effective Communication system and state of the art Control Room ensures efficiency.

- Documenting of good practices and emulating the same. As state above the Kumbhathon APP was developed so that the problems of Kumbha Mela are solved once and for all.

Often simple solutions are needed rather than massive jargons for example when the infamous Bhopal Gas tragedy happened people inside the factory were saved as they were told earlier that in case of a gas leakage, they simply need to cover there nose with wet cloth. Every place has its unique challenges and its unique simple solutions that do not require investment but require regular updating of techniques to manage the same.

India is known to be a land of Holy places and religious /Spiritual tourism as per the India Brand Equity Foundationis estimated to contribute to the Indian economy Rs 32.05 trillion or US$492.21bn in 2028. One could learn from the Japanese located in the Pacific Ring of Fire, overlapping the four continental plates the Pacific, the Philippine, the Eurasian, and the North American plate. Here, the plates slide over liquid rock cause tension, which is eventually released and causes earthquakes occurring several times every day, however, systems and institutionalisation of DRR has made Japan a safe country. Therefore, let us make a concentrated effort from moving away from personality driven approaches to institutionalising Disaster Risk Reduction with technology aligning with UN Sustainable Development Goals and stop fooling ourselves of salvation to heaven while being a victim of human callousness.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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