MUMBAI // More than 60 people, the majority of them women and children, were trampled to death in a massive stampede at a temple in northern India yesterday. The stampede broke out as more than 10,000 people crammed into a narrow area built for less than 250 in Pratapgarh district, Uttar Pradesh.
The deaths came as the crowd jostled with each other to get free food, clothes and utensils being distributed to the poor during a religious ceremony. An gate, which was under-construction, is believed to have collapsed as the crowd pushed forward towards the local holy man. While most people were crushed under the gate, it triggered a panic and hundreds tried to escape through a narrow outlet, many tripped and fell under the feet of the hurrying crowd.
The disaster struck at the Ram Janaki temple owned by Jagadguru Kripaluji Maharaj, a well-known holy man, in the town of Kunda, about 640km south-east of New Delhi. Thirty-seven of those killed were children. The death toll is expected to rise given many of the injured are in a critical condition. "We have counted all the bodies," said SP Pathak, a police official, even as chaos reigned at the temple site as relatives searched for bodies of loved ones. "Most of them were women and children who came to collect free gifts."
Such panic-driven deaths are quite common in India, especially during religious festivals. Indians across a vast social spectrum participate in religious gatherings in large numbers. Stampedes in temples and other religious places - locally called "temple crushes" - have claimed more than 700 lives in the last eight years, according to government statistics. The fact that thousands of people pressed into the village temple to scramble for the ceremonial temple feast and other freebies indicate the cripplingly poor backgrounds they came from.
Uttar Pradesh, India's largest and most populous state, is also one of its poorest. According to India's planning commission, Uttar Pradesh accounts for nearly one-fifth of India's poor. About 59 million people, one-third of the state's population, live below the poverty line. Only 1.8 million families living below the poverty line are believed to be covered under health insurance. Ms Rajkumari Ratna Singh, the member of parliament from Pratapgarh, sought New Delhi's assistance for those injured in the stampede. She also asked Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to provide a compensation of 500,000 Indian rupees (Dh40,100) to the kin of those killed.
Yesterday's stampede revived painful memories of a 2004 stampede in Lucknow, the state capital, when 21 women jostling for free sarees distributed during the birthday celebrations of a local politician were crushed to death. The stampede began when rumours went around that there were no more sarees to distribute. In the hours after the stampede, dozens of bodies lay stacked on top of each other at the site.
It is not clear if charges will be pressed against the owners of the temple for failing to control the crowds yesterday. It did not have the infrastructure - or space - to accommodate the influx of people. It is understood that they did not inform the police about the gathering. Crowd management measures in most religious gatherings are less than basic, if they exist at all. More often than not, the police force is unable to control the sea of humans that congregate at religious and pilgrimage sites. Tens of millions of pilgrims flock every year to the massive Kumbh Mela festival at the confluence of the holy Ganges and Yamuna river. Such massive gatherings of religious pilgrims are more prone to stampedes.
In one of India's deadliest ever stampedes, in January 2005, more than 300 people were killed during a Hindu pilgrimage in the remote Mandhar Devi temple in the western state of Maharashtra. Most pilgrims were crushed and charred to death as fires from roadside stalls forced crowds into a narrow stairway leading up to the hilltop temple. In a similar deadly incident in October 2008, about 220 people died near the Chamunda Devi Hindu temple inside Jodhpur's famous Mehrangarh fort. The incident happened at the start of Navaratri, a nine-day Hindu festival, during which more than 25,000 worshippers had rushed towards the hilltop shrine to join in an auspicious moment for offering prayers. That stampede appeared to have started when a wall along the narrow path leading up to the temple collapsed, killing several people. In the ensuing panic, hundreds of pilgrims were crushed and suffocated to death.