Allahabad: At least 10 people were killed and over a dozen injured when the railing of an overbridge at Allahabad railway station collapsed yesterday due to the Kumbh Mela rush, state government officials and Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal said. A probe has been ordered.
“As many as 10 people have been killed ... around 12 or 13 persons who were injured have been moved to hospital. We have set up a helpline at Delhi railway station,” Bansal said in Delhi.
Though the minister did not specify the cause of the accident, he denied the claim of state government officials and said the railing of the over bridge did not break. “As per my information, the railing did not break ... we are trying to verify this,” Bansal said.
Uttar Pradesh home department sources said the death toll could mount to 12. A cane charge-prompted stampede preceded the tragedy at 7.15pm on platform numbers 5 and 6 of the railway station in the city which hosted over three crore devotees at the Kumbh Mela during the biggest bathing day ‘Mauni Amavasya’, district officials said.
The tragedy occurred on the foot overbridge between platforms 5 and 6 when the railing collapsed due to overcrowding. Several people fell on the tracks and down the stairs, the officials said.
After the deaths, the Uttar Pradesh government requested the railways to shift some trains from the busy Allahabad station to the Prayag station on the outskirts of the city, 200km from state capital Lucknow, an official said.
“Our senior officials have reached the spot and are planning to send 50 special trains besides the 112 trains that pass through the section daily so that the large number of passengers can reach their destinations safely,” Bansal said.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh condoled the death of pilgrims in the stampede and directed central ministries, including the railways, to extend all possible help to the state government in relief operations.
Some witnesses said people were cane-charged by police just before the incident as the crowd was becoming unruly and plying of trains had come to a halt. As soon as the bridge’s railing broke, there was a stampede, another witness said.
Abhijeet Das, a passenger on platform number 6, accused the police of cane-charge and said that it led to the stampede. “Many people have died and their bodies were still lying there. Medical help did not arrive for over two hours,” he said.
Police cordoned off the area and closed entry into the station. Trains coming to Sangam city were halted at Prayag railway station. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, condoling the loss of life, ordered a probe. “A committee, headed by the chairman of the revenue board, has been formed by the chief minister to look into the reasons leading to the tragedy,” an official said.
The state government also asked the railway ministry to ply more special trains so that the crowd in Allahabad could ease. While north central railways (NCR) ran 17 special trains for the ‘Mauni Amavasya’, arrangements turned out to be insufficient.
“We made elaborate arrangements but there has been an unfortunate incident. Our first priority is to attend to the injured,” said Sandeep Mathur, chief public relations officer of NCR.
The trains were meant to augment the crowds returning after a holy dip at the Kumbh Mela and take passengers to New Delhi, Indore, Kanpur, Varanasi, Ahmedabad and other places, said a railway official.
He said most people at the Allahabad railway station were headed to Fatehpur, Etawah, Tundla, Shikohabad, Firozabad, Aligarh, Khurja and Manikpur stations and hence the crowd became unmanageable and swelled to unexpected numbers.
The tragedy came at the end of a day which organisers had earlier declared a success after a record number had taken a bath in the holy waters of the Ganges, which is said to cleanse pilgrims of their sins. “By afternoon over 20 million people had taken the holy dip and by evening the numbers crossed 30 million,” top local official Devesh Chaturvedi said.
Thousands of volunteers on duty and police urged pilgrims to take one short bath and then leave the waters to make space for the flow of humanity behind them which stretched for kilometres.
The Kumbh Mela, which began last month and ends in March, takes place every 12 years in the northern city of Allahabad. Smaller, similar events are held every three years in other locations around India. This year’s Mela is big even by previous standards, with astrologers saying a planetary alignment seen once every 147 years made it particularly auspicious for some pilgrims.
“This is a rare combination of planets which would bring in good times for some zodiac signs and adverse effects for others,” said Amarpal Sharma, a local astrologer. The bathing takes place at an area called Sangam, the confluence of the rivers Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati. Devotees believe entering the water cleanses them of sin and frees them from the cycle of rebirth.
Despite the hardships of waking early, plunging into the polluted water and the relentless crush of the crowds, pilgrims described feeling spiritually uplifted and amazed by the scale of the event.
More than 7,000 policemen were deployed to oversee bathing yesterday along with 30,000 volunteers to guard against stampedes. Most devotees dunk their heads under the water, some drink it and others bottle it and take it home as gifts. Management of the festival requires a monumental effort — and a budget of Rs16 trillion ($290m).