India is a religiously inclined country and the map of India is dotted with many such religious sites, temples and pilgrimages. Some of these are quite inaccessible, but that seldom discourages the devotees from assembling at such places during festivities and religious celebrations. Usually such religious sites are overcrowded during religious festivals. With less than one third of the necessary police presence, it is the ‘pandas’ and ‘purohits’ who play the active role in crowd control; incidentally, their authority overrides the legal presence in such religious sites. With inexperienced personnel manning the huge crowd, every such religious assemblage runs the risk of stampede and other man-made disasters. While in some cases the disasters are mild, there are cases where the ill management of the huge assemblage of devotees unleashed a catastrophe, The same is evident from the Ratnagarh Mata Temple (Datia district, MP) disaster on the October 13, 2013, during the Navaratri festival, where a stampede outside the Ratnagarh Mata Temple claimed the lives of more than 100 people, leaving several others seriously injured.

It is to be mentioned here that a similar calamity took place at exactly the same place in 2006. However, both the state and the legal authorities had turned a blind eye to it back then, forgetting to implement any measures to safeguard the huge congregation of devotees during the religious festivals. It is probably a miracle of the Ratnagarh Mata that nothing happened in the ensuing seven years, but tragedy struck again during the Navaratri festivals this year. The Ratnagarh Mata Temple disaster is an example of another man-made disaster which could have been avoided easily with proper crowd-control measures.

The Ratnagarh Mata Temple Disaster in Datia district of Madhya Pradesh

The entry to the Ratnagarh Mata Temple is through a bridge over the Sindh River. On the Navaratri this year (October 13, 2013), the bridge was, as usual, packed with the devotees looking forward to a ‘darshan’ of the revered Ratnagarh Mata. What ensued was quite unthinkable. A stampede broke out that claimed a death toll of 115, leaving more than a 100 grievously injured. The death toll is expected to rise as the many of the injured are in a serious condition and may succumb to their injuries. What exactly set off this disastrous stampede is not very clear till now. While the onlookers and the eyewitnesses identified the cause of the stampede as the police using batons to contain the overwhelming crowd on the bridge, the district administration, however, dismisses the police action as the probable cause of the stampede. They maintain the view that the hearsay about the imminent cave-in of the bridge caused the frenzied rush. The saddest and the most shameful part of the whole story is that the dead comprise mostly women and children, who met their gruesome demise by falling off from the bridge into the strong currents of the Sindh River flowing underneath.

The statements of D. K. Acharya, Deputy Inspector General (DIG), Chambal range, affirmed the death toll to be 115. The statements also indicated that the death toll may increase as many of the injured are in serious condition. The underwater divers are currently scouring the Sindh River in search of more dead bodies and individuals who may have survived the catastrophe and were carried away by the strong drift, the results of which may also contribute to the current death toll. The injured are being airlifted to avail them prompt medical care.

Post-Disaster: The actions of the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan

Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan lost no time in ordering a judicial inquiry, closely followed by the formation of an inquiry commission for further investigations into the disaster. As per the statement given by Chouhan, “A commission of inquiry to look into yesterday’s stampede would be set up within two days”. He further added that, penalization of those responsible will be effected within 15 days, following the submission of the inquiry report, which is due after two months. Skeptics and opposition party leaders maintain the view that all such inquiries proposed by the CM are nothing but a charade, a desperate move on the part of the CM to cover up the administrative lapses, in view of the elections just around the corner. Union Minister of State for Power, Jyotiraditya Scindia, openly expressed his cynical views after inspecting the disaster site, “I am sure that nothing will come out of the inquiry commission which has been promised by Shivraj Singh Chouhan”. While beseeching prompt penalization of the responsible individuals, Scindia also recalled the futility of the inquiry commission regarding the 2006 Ratnagarh Mata Temple disaster. CM Chouhan, following a directive of the Election Commission, declared compensations of Rs 1.5 lakh to the next of kin of those who died in the disaster, Rs 50,000 to the injured, and Rs 25,000 to the survivors.

This move of Chouhan was openly criticized by the Leader of Opposition in the State Assembly, Ajay Singh, who cited Salkanpur Temple Disaster. He underlined the fact that when the victims of the said disaster received a compensation of Rs. 2 lakh each, Chouhan should increase the compensation amount to the family of the deceased in the Ratnagarh Mata Temple disaster to at least Rs. 5 Lakhs. Meanwhile, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav declared a compensatory amount of Rs. 2 lakhs for the families of the victims in the Ratnagarh Mata Temple disaster, who belonged to the state of UP.

Political reactions after the disaster

The Congress party made much hue and cry, demanding the resignation of the BJP CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Congress Leader Digvijaya Singh and Spokesperson Ajay Maken stressed on the fact that the whole disaster was man-made, and criticized the administration for it. Such allegation were not entirely brushed off by the BJP, who admitted to administrative laxity but also pointed out that the Congress approach to the tragedy is completely motivated by politics aimed at the impending elections. They further denounced the behavior of the Congress, ‘playing politics over dead bodies’, as inhuman under the circumstances. While the political mudslinging continues, the rescue missions are still underway to locate possible survivors or dead bodies from the disaster.

Conclusion

The stampede statistics at the religious sites all over India as furnished by BJP are appalling:

  • Kumbh Mela (Nasik) – 40
  • Sabarimala (Kerala) – 106
  • Kunda (UP) – 63
  • Mandhara Devi (Maharashtra) – 350

Evidently all the above mentioned disasters are man-made, but our governments seem to be totally ignorant about preventing such disasters at the religious sites. With a little effort from the legal authorities, deploying a large number of personnel trained at handling huge crowds at the religious sites during the festivities, could be a simple solution. But thanks to the impervious nature of the government, we are now sitting on yet another man-made tragedy that could easily have been avoided, had there been a proper crowd-control machinery in place. The Ratnagarh Mata Temple disaster took a confirmed death toll of 115 people and more than a hundred injured, which records the total number of victims dying as a result of stampede in various religious sites during festivities as 674. How many more innocent lives need to be lost to jolt the government back to its senses?