The Anatomy of an Indian Stampede


The Anatomy of an Indian Stampede

Illustration: Sushant Ahire/Arré

Yesterday was the last day of Navratri, a general sense of happiness and well-being in the air. I watched people in the train, dressed to the nines, looking forward to the day. I was on the Western Line, that connects Mumbai’s northern suburbs with the rest of the city: The same network that was the site of a stampede that killed 22 people and injured almost twice the number.

I was lucky to have gotten off many stations prior, but I can’t stop thinking about the faces of the people who must have deboarded at Elphinstone railway station, a business hub that houses several corporates. I wonder how many of them made it out of the crush alive.

There have been stampedes in other parts of the world, but why does it feel like India is an especial victim along the route of this deathly juggernaut? Growing up, my mum explained that I couldn’t climb up the Qutub Minar, after a deadly stampede in 1981 ensured that it was forever closed to the public. I thought we’d have outgrown that phase, but in April 2016, 107 people died at the Puttingal Devi temple in Kerala. Roll back a few years and the statistics and situation remains depressingly same: 115 deaths in Madhya Pradesh’s Ratangarh Mata Temple in 2013; 224 at the Chamunda Devi temple in Rajasthan in 2008. You’re looking at thousands of injured people as well, every single year.

Unlike a terror attack, there is no evil motive behind a stampede, it is not a planned attempt to kill or cause destruction. It isn’t a natural disaster either. In both those situations, there is at least a modicum of preparedness. But how do we prepare for a stampede?

Indians are always in a hurry and want to be the first at everything: Boarding a train, driving in traffic, or standing in a queue.

Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times via Getty Image

Elphinstone’s survivors might have the rain to blame, but most other stampedes have been the result of a sudden panicked rush, usually based on a rumour or a loud noise. As Indians, we have mastered the art of panic and rush. In Hollywood, they have to make movies titled Rush Hour, while in India it remains a way of life. We are always in a hurry and want to be the first at everything: Boarding a train, driving in traffic, or standing in a queue. After a flight lands, we can’t wait for a moment despite flight attendants repeatedly requesting otherwise.

As for the panic and rumours, we’ll believe just about anything, from stupid Whatsapp forwards to something a fellow traveller on the train tells us. If there is one thing we sorely need to pick up from our adored captain MS Dhoni, it is the ability to stay calm under pressure, and to assess a situation before jumping the gun.

I’ve tried and failed to wrap my head around this dichotomy. We are the first to panic, but we are also a people most callous about our own safety. If you really need any proof of that, wait for Diwali. Or try to stop at a traffic signal. If you abide by traffic rules and drive carefully, you’re accused of being a “phattu”. Fire safety mock drills in offices are excuses to go to the chai tapri. We’re a people who live by the “look ma, no hands” philosophy. After all, what is this life? Just a cycle of birth and death — you’ll soon have another one.

Not only is space a concept that is alien to us, we barely understand what crowd control means.

Bhushan Koyande/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

That said, it’s unfair to just blame a population for what is also an administrative and infrastructure failure: The government’s apologists have already been doing that.

Do commuters enjoy travelling atop a train or hanging outside it? People have to board trains before they completely stop because if you don’t, you might not get a place at all. So many people get injured in the process daily, lose their legs — I have had a couple of spectacles smashed in the rush — but that’s a risk you have to take, just to be able to get to work. When more than two trains arrive at Dadar, it takes you no less than 10 minutes to just get out of the premises. It’s a ticking time bomb. The reason people believed the rumour of the Elphinstone bridge collapsing is because it really isn’t far-fetched.

As a commuter, what choice do you have? Risk travelling by road where a pothole could kill you? Or the boredom when you’re stuck in a merciless jam? That’s the price you pay for the right to be able to earn — Death.

Not only is space a concept that is alien to us, we barely understand what crowd control means. We rarely set a limit to the number of people that can be at any place at any time. Take our religious yatras, for instance, where there is an uncontrolled influx of pilgrims — and it is sacrilege to turn anyone back, even if your infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle it. We know very little about what to do in case disaster strikes, and our educational curriculum has taught us next to nothing about disaster management.

Which is why, I wonder, why I have never seen “stampede control” on any party’s election manifesto. “Terrorism” pops up frequently, but it’s a less severe threat than what our own people can do to each other. Why is it that we almost never see stampedes capture the political narrative, an issue that can be dealt with if we get a few basic things right?

My theory is that we’ve already moved on from this tragedy. Just the way we have moved on from Kerala, from Madhya Pradesh, from Delhi. All we are left with at the end of the day is a series of “if onlys”. If only people walked in a queue, if only they didn’t push and panic, if only the bridge was slightly larger, and if only a response mechanism was in place. If only.

Make a few noises about the Spirit of Mumbai that was quite literally crushed on that unfortunate morning, and move on. Don’t linger to look at the bodies shrouded in white cloth. The next train is rolling into the station.