Could Hindu festival ‘pop-up megacity’ be an organizational model for India?

March 1, 2013

Onno Ruhl, head of the World Bank in India, calls it “an incredible logistical operation.” Harvard researchers describe it as “a pop-up megacity”.

On the sandbanks of the Ganges River at Allahabad, bureaucrats and workers from Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and one of its poorest, took less than three months to build a tent city for 2 million people — complete with hard roads, toilets, running water, electricity, food shops, garbage collection and well-manned police stations.

Organizers do much the same every three years – although on a particularly large scale every 12 years, as in 2013 – for the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival celebrated in turn at four different locations on the Ganges.

This year’s event, a combination of religious worship and medieval funfair, has attracted millions of pilgrims from across India who come to wash away their sins in the Ganges at its confluence with the Yamuna. During its two months to mid-March, the mela will have attracted 80 million to 100 million faithful. Up to 30 million attempted to bathe on Feb. 10 alone, officials say.

Precise numbers are hard to estimate, but devotees and foreign visitors are generally full of praise for the organizers of what is arguably the largest gathering of humans on earth.

Apart from a Feb. 10 stampede at the nearby Allahabad railway station in which 36 people were killed, the Kumbh Mela itself has so far gone smoothly. Fresh water comes out of the taps. Toilets are disinfected. Trained police carefully shepherd the crowds to the bathing ghats. The lights come on at night.

In the minds of both Indians and foreigners, this raises important questions: How? Why? Or, if the authorities can build infrastructure so efficiently for this short but very large festival and its instant city, why can they not do the same for permanent villages and towns?

The World Bank’s Ruhl, who was moved to bathe in the Ganges himself when he visited the Kumbh Mela this year, says the city on the sandbanks, soon to be dismantled before the river floods, “has water, sanitation, power, solid waste management, everything, actually, that many Indian cities lack”.

“To somebody who does projects, it’s like a mega-refugee camp that came up overnight and gets sustained and managed for two months with people filtering [in and out] at a rate of millions a day. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. . . . It’s managed by the UP [Uttar Pradesh] government. . . . If somehow we could translate that capacity to day-to-day business, you could transform UP. It’s a really powerful thought.”

Uttar Pradesh is often seen as the epitome of all that is wrong with India. With a population of more than 200 million – larger than Brazil’s – the state is notoriously corrupt and inefficient.

Take sanitation. In the decade to 2011, the UP government reported steadily rising construction of latrines in rural areas with the help of $600 million in public funds. But the 2011 census showed that almost no toilets had actually been built. Most of the money was stolen, leaving tens of thousands of children to die each year as a result of diarrhea spread by what one aid worker called “appalling” sanitation.

There are few such problems at the Kumbh Mela, however. Devesh Chaturvedi, a senior official who is divisional commissioner of Allahabad, is proud of the “huge task” that he and perhaps 100,000 workers have completed in organizing this year’s festival.

He mentions 100 miles of roads made by placing steel plates on the sand, 18 pontoon bridges, 347 miles of water supply lines, 400 miles of electricity lines, 22,500 street lights and 200,000 electricity connections, as well as 275 food shops for essential supplies such as flour, rice, milk and cooking gas.

Chaturvedi agrees there is a contrast between the successful provision of these services and the way life continues in the rest of the state, and has two explanations. First, the authorities ensure that all those working on the project are accountable for their actions and the money they spend. Second, those involved are highly motivated.

“They feel it’s a real service to all these pilgrims who have come here, the sadhus [holy men] and the seers, so it’s a sort of mission which motivates them to work extra, despite difficult working conditions.”

Good organization and efficient infrastructure, in short, are no more impossible in India than anywhere else. “The lesson is, it can be done,” says Bhagawati Saraswati, a Californian-born Hindu devotee camped on the river bank with other members of an ashram based on the upper Ganges.

She notes the “phenomenal” number of man-hours and employees devoted to the Kumbh Mela, but says the event still shows that India can organize itself.

“It’s an amazing lesson,” she says. “What it means is: India can do it. All of the villages, all of the cities can have electricity, they can have running water, they can have roads. That attention, that focus, that clarity, that commitment, just has to be there.”

— Financial Times

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