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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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SAFETY FIRST

Religious festivities attract big crowds everywhere. Maintaining public order and managing the crowds become major tasks for the authorities on such occasions. The tragedy during the Chhath festival in Patna suggests that much needs to be done in order to make such festivals safe for the people. It is still unclear what exactly triggered the stampede that caused so many deaths in Patna. Some reports blame it on an unstable bamboo bridge that was hastily erected and collapsed under the weight of a sudden rush of people trying to cross it. According to some other media reports, a brief spell of power cut in the area caused the panic and the rush. It is obvious, though, that the authorities failed to put in place a system to tackle such emergencies. It is amazing that the Bihar government had not thought of a disaster management system to respond to such situations. Chhath is Biharís principal religious festival. Adequate preparations should have gone into ensuring that basic safety requirements were in place.

However, the deaths by the river in Patna should be a wake-up call to governments and other authorities across the country. There are several religious festivals in India in which millions of people participate. The Durga Puja in Calcutta and the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad are among the most popular of such festivals. Although tragedies have struck some of these in the past, safety measures and crowd management strategies have generally improved over the years. The Bihar government should draw lessons from other governments and authorities on how to improve its own arrangements during Chhath. But it must first find out what exactly caused the tragedy. It is entirely possible that the tragedy was the result of some government officials not doing their duties properly. Such errant officials must be brought to book. There is also a case for involving larger numbers of trained volunteers to help the police manage the crowds.