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US takes market tips from Kumbh vendors

- Teams from several varsities track vegetable sellers’ business operations

New Delhi, Feb. 11: American economist Emily Breza has spent several days mingling with the crowds at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, seeking out vegetable vendors and tracking their business operations.

She's watched them sell potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflowers, among other staples that go into the kitchens that feed the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every day during the 55-day Kumbh Mela, the world's largest religious festival.

"We're trying to understand how the vendors cope with the risks and uncertainty in a fast-changing market," said Breza, an assistant professor of finance and economics at Columbia Business School in New York. "What we learn from the Kumbh may some day help small and large business firms elsewhere in the world," Breza told The Telegraph .

The Kumbh Mela has drawn faculty, researchers, and students from institutions across the US who're hoping to draw lessons in urban planning, disease surveillance and outbreak prediction, and business risk management.

The multi-disciplinary project led by senior faculty at Harvard University is expected to lead to a set of educational tools and resources relevant for the study of business, urban design, religion, and global health.

Rahul Mehrotra, who teaches urban design and planning at Harvard, for instance, led a team that studied the structures of settlements that house pilgrims and the routes that pilgrims take for events such as bathing or nighttime celebrations, according to a media release from Harvard University.

Satchit Balsari, a medical graduate from the Grant Medical College, Mumbai, now an emergency physician in New York, has also spent a week in Allahabad, monitoring illnesses reported by four hospitals in the Kumbh Mela zone.

The public health team has noticed -- as had been anticipated -- spikes in the incidence of acute respiratory infections such as colds and coughs as the population in the zone swelled. The researchers assisted by a team of 15 medical students from colleges in Allahabad and Mumbai, have collected disease information from about 20,000 patients, and hope to understand how infections can cluster within populations.

"Such data can be used to develop algorithms to predict looming outbreaks in other contexts with similar transient populations," said Balsari, who's also associate faculty at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. "They might help in the management of post-disaster rehabilitation centres, large refugee camps, or similar religious gatherings," Balsari told The Telegraph .

A public health research group from Harvard University studied sanitation around the Kumbh Mela, documenting what it has described as "the diversity of toilet facilities that ranged from simple corrugated metal or canvas enclosures around a drainpipe channeling liquid waste into the ground to sophisticated biotoilets that used bacteria to convert solid waste into liquid that is then filtered and leached into the [ground]."

"The Kumbh Mela showcases not just the challenges [to sanitation], but also a range of solutions from advanced technology-based sanitation to simpler easy-to-implement solutions," Michael Vortmann, another physician from New York and public health team member who spent six days in Allahabad, told this newspaper.

Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at the Harvard Divinity School, and her students studied the religious and environmental aspects of the Kumbh. Her student Rachel Taylor examined the ritual use of flowers and their environmental impact on the Kumbh, following marigolds from the marketplace to the banks of the river.

They also observed religious performances during the festival, and what some team members described as "the relationship between faith and science."

Two research teams from Harvard Business School independently examined governance and the formation of networks and groups during the Kumbh Mela. Breza, for instance, detected the presence of strong networks between vegetable vendors. "The questions we're asking is -- do they share information about the markets, do they share inventory, to what extent does this help them?"

"Networks matter even for larger firms -- when markets don't work perfectly, even larger firms sometimes need to work together," Breza said. "This provides us a nice setting to see how networks between entrepreneurs work."