The lack of proper security and facilities at the Athi Varadar festival which led to the death of four devotees, though unfortunate, has left the Tamil Nadu government with a lot to answer for.
The death of four devotees in the stampede among the crowd that had thronged to have a glimpse of Athi Varadar deity on Thursday is very unfortunate.
The worst part is that it was a mishap waiting to happen.
Right from day one when the deity was opened for public darshan, it was clear that the place and the arrangements made thereof were never going to be adequate for the kind of crowd that was expected. Still, the state government authorities, who were responsible for security and other related arrangements, seemed to have stayed complacent, which after the death of four devotees, looks callous and cruel.
The deity of Athi Varadar is taken out of water once every 40 years and kept for public darshan for a period of 40 days. The previous time the Lord was taken out was in 1979. According to believers, the emergence of Athi Varadar ushers in health, wealth and happiness. Vaishnavite scholars themselves are not sure about the tradition behind why the Lord is buried under the waters of the temple pond. The idol is made of fig tree (Athi in Tamil means fig) and hence its eponymous name.
This year, the festivities began on July 2. In the initial days, the throng of devotees from far and wide was manageable. Also, old timers in the town don't recall huge turnout 40 years ago.
As the legend of Athi Varadar grew, especially through social media forwards, the visitors' count saw a sharp surge, and by most accounts, it began to touch the mark of one lakh people per day. It is the kind of number that the small temple town of Kancheepuram is hardly capable of handling on a daily basis.
"The moment it became clear that the number of people visiting the place was not going to abate, the local administration should have gone on an overdrive and put in place better crowd control arrangements," said D Kumar, a local journalist. "Instead, it looked on uninterested even as the media and the public vented their anger against the poor facilities on a daily basis. Now when four people have died, they have nowhere to hide themselves," he added.
A government official, on condition of anonymity said, "the town itself is so small, how could it accommodate an ocean of people arriving. Even the best of systems would be tested in the face of such a huge crowd."
The number of (temporary) public toilets, transport to the temple and drinking water facilities were also very low. There were many complaints on that score. But those were difficulties that the devotees put up with. The poor crowd management and the lack of any clear system in the movement of the queue, however, have been fatal.
"Poor crowd management was because there was inadequate number of police personnel posted at the place," says another local journalist. "The government had announced that 2,000 cops would be posted for duty during the festival. But I don't think there were actually more than 500 to 600 on duty."
It is because of lack of monitoring by cops there were scuffles and skirmishes on a daily basis in the queues and people were brazenly jumping line or straddling over barricades to move forward. "It is also a fact that the public did not conduct themselves properly. But at the risk of stereotyping, it is an old Indian failing. We cannot stick to queue and move in an orderly fashion,' says the journalist.
The authorities could have brought in experts from places like Tirupati which sees lakhs and lakhs of visitors on a daily basis, says Amudha Ganesh, a devotee who had come from Bengaluru. But a local official said that they had indeed roped in domain experts (in crowd management). "But the lack of space and poor infrastructure crippled our planning. Tirupati has systems in place to handle such crowds. We don't. It is as simple as that," he adds.
Things were sober and quiet today. The numbers of devotees were also bit less than yesterday. There were more number of cops than yesterday. Ambulances were also seen in strategic spots. The barricades were in place and things looked slightly more orderly.
That it took the death of four people for things to get better is the real tragedy.
Last Updated 8:04 PM IST