|Pilgrims walk on the bridge leading to the temple on Monday, a day after the stampede. (AFP)
On Sunday, just as one breathed easy that Cyclone Phailin hadn’t left thousands dead, 115 people died in a stampede at a temple in Madhya Pradesh.
Crowds on the bridge leading to Ratangarh Mata temple or tens of thousands squeezed into Himalayan valleys are similar to forces of nature gathering momentum over far oceans and then barrelling up the Bay of Bengal. The architecture for heightened impact is pretty much the same.
Difference is — one is high-impact incoming fury, the other is high-impact incoming casualty. One features the unstoppable vapours of natural phenomena; the other, humanity’s blind faith on display.
For the faithful, the focus is still not on avoiding calamity. Rather it is competition with nature to make faith as unstoppable as a very severe cyclone. Phailin blows in from the sea triggering massive disaster management preparations on land. Pilgrims expect no less for their right to sweep in like a human cyclone.
Nobody has any control over clouds and pressure systems. It is beyond human beings to control. According to media reports ahead of Phailin’s landfall, the entire vortex was half of India in size. Its eye was 15km across. Juxtapose it on the lay of the Bay of Bengal, an arc of a sea atop big ocean, resembling a harbour for incoming cyclones. It gives you an idea of Phailin’s landward journey and its power.
This is where cyclones have come to rest for centuries. You get out of its way or learn to manage yourself despite it. The latter was the good work that governments and agencies did resulting in reduced loss of life on Sunday. By Sunday night, Phailin’s death toll on the sea coast it bombarded at peak fury was 17.
Same day, over five times as many dead in Phailin, would lose their lives at the Ratangarh Mata temple with no cyclone to blame. Rumour mongering of bridge collapse was cited in initial reports as cause. Assuming that was the culprit, the whole process still cut a sorry example of human imagination.
There was a crowd. There was a bridge that likely squeezed that crowd. Without squeeze, neither do stampedes occur nor do they turn deadly. Yet, the same night that we breathed a sigh of relief over Phailin, there were those questioning how Phailin could be tackled but not disaster during pilgrimages, notably the Uttarakhand tragedy of June 2013.
We habitually play cyclone in neighbourhood Bays of Bengal. The crux of Sunday’s temple incident probably lay in the squeeze. Deliberate mischief or none, had the squeeze been circumvented either through a broader bridge or not crowding to the temple in the first place, the tragedy could have been avoided. Metaphorically narrow Himalayan valleys are the same as such squeeze.
Giant pilgrimages ensured that thousands invaded tight mountain spaces. When Uttarakhand’s floods struck, it was a squeeze — the matrix of human numbers and limited space — at work.
Global weather has been in flux. Weather in the Himalaya has been unpredictable. Unlike retreating from the sea in Odisha to stable land and adequate space to manoeuvre, you have no such luxury in the Himalaya. Being a young mountain chain, the fragile Himalaya and its steep slopes are prone to landslide.
Haphazard development aggravates it. Nature doesn’t have to exert as much as Phailin did on the seacoast to extract tragedy in the Himalaya. Yet that’s where we presented our human cyclone, ramming it into a Bay of Bengal of mountains.
We limited Cyclone Phailin’s impact because we behaved intelligently on terrain suited for required manoeuvres. True, we failed to anticipate calamity in Uttarakhand. But the bigger mistake was — we knew the consequences and yet did not rethink the wisdom in giant pilgrimages.
The human cyclone courting narrow confines is a peculiarly Indian Phailin to be consciously aware of. You can’t accept it and Cyclone Phailin in the same vein, unless, faith is accorded the status of a powerful cyclone. If you do that, the good work of last Sunday becomes hard to institutionalise.
The human being as cyclone and disciplined saviour at once is not just untenable script but social legitimacy for disaster.
(The writer is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)