Deepa Jainani finds out how back-of-house success in administration leads to front-of-house success in experience for the over 900 lakh pilgrims at the Maha Kumbh. Photos by Vishal Srivastav
As many as 900 lakh people, charged up sentiments, religion on the agenda and a state notorious for its law and order problems—there could not be a better recipe for disaster. But there are no discordant notes at the Kumbh Mela, currently on at Allahabad.
Greasing the wheels of efficiency, for starters, is the budget. Both the Centre and the Uttar Pradesh government have spent R11,000 crore to organise and manage the 56-day-long event. Second, the seriousness with which the administration approaches the showcase event. Friday evening’s incident of fire due to a gas leak was dealt with promptly and the state government immediately announced cash relief of R50,000 each to the seriously injured.
“The event is a prestigious one and a lot of honour is attached with it. There have been strict instructions right from chief minister Akhilesh Yadav and the state’s chief secretary, Jawed Usmani, that there should be no laxity in making proper arrangements for the events. In fact, the chief secretary has been continuously assessing the infrastructure and facilities at the Kumbh and has even conducted surprise checks of the facilities after he received complaints of unavailability of medical aid, water in toilets and poor roads in some parts of the mela area. He has directed the water board and mela authorities to ensure proper service delivery and ordered the appointment of one officer to monitor the health and sanitation facilities for each sector of the mela area,” an official of the local Kumbh Mela administration told FE.
As many as 30,000 security personnel have been put on duty, including police, paramilitary, rapid action force, special task force, anti-terror squad, army jawans, as well as intelligence sleuths who man the mela area round the clock. “As many as 30 police stations have been set up across the 52 sq km area of the mela, besides 85 CCTV cameras and 59 watch towers to supplement these arrangements,” says Alok Sharma, IG Allahabad zone, adding that a seven-tier security system eliminates any threat of lawlessness.
SP Ganganath Tripathi adds that security personnel have been specially sensitised to deal with pilgrims. “The pattern of duty here is different from general policing. So we had to instill in the forces that their duty here has so much to do with protecting the faith of millions irrespective of the odds. It is our duty to ensure that their faith is reciprocated,” says ADM Ashutosh Kumar Dwivedi, adding that by doing this, the jawans also become “punya ke bhagidaar”.
Kamal Asthana, a pilgrim from Rajasthan, is happy with the tight security arrangements. “It is good to see the security forces in action all the time. Our car was frisked at many points to ensure that we were not carrying anything illegal,” he says.
Planning and preparations for the mela began in September, right after the monsoon was over and the rivers receded, to build “Kumbha Nagri”, complete with all modern facilities to accommodate the tsunami of a thousand lakh people who would descend on its shores for a dip in the holy waters of the confluence. Says Mani Prasad Misra, the officer in charge of the Kumbh Mela, “Money was allotted to various departments to start work in September. Electricity poles and cables have been laid and two permanent sub-stations have been built for round-the-clock power supply. New tubewells have been dug up and as many as 18 pontoon bridges have been put in place. Medical centres have also been increased in the mela area.
To accommodate the needs of the well-heeled Indian as well as foreign tourists, the Uttar Pradesh State Tourism Development Corporation has made arrangements for luxurious cottages that boast of facilities such as blowers, geysers, separate sitting rooms and well-equipped toilets. Says Bharti Singh, OSD (officer of special duty), UP Tourism, “We have been providing tents for the pilgrims for many years and have introduced luxury cottages this year.” The 10 ‘Maharaja Swiss’ cottages have been imported from Oman and are known for their opulence. Each cottage is made of imported materials like bubble wall panels and flex, and are waterproof. They have wooden flooring and maintain a constant temperature. Priced at R12,000 per day, the cottages are furnished with imported furniture and have wi-fi facility as well. Moreover, 42 luxury cottages have also been set up at the mela venue that include modern gadgets
Apart from UP Tourism, many private tourism companies are also providing accommodation for pilgrims. For instance, Cox & Kings has put up 64 luxury tents at Laxmi Kutir in Allahabad. “There is a huge demand for accommodation, especially on the main bathing days. In order to cater to that demand, we have started this new trend of offering Bhakti Yatra package of four days/three nights at a price of R15,452 on twin sharing basis. “The package comes with all three meals, aarti darshan, a boat ride and an interaction with the sadhus. The response so far is good, but since pilgrimage tourism is a new phenomenon, it will take some time to catch up,” says a representative of the agency
Other private companies, too, are offering deluxe cottages at R10,000 per cottage per person for a day. They come with an in-built boat ride, three meals, a guide and a panoramic view of the ghats. The luxury deluxe rooms come at R12,000 while the suites come at R15,000 per day. These cottages have unique surroundings, including open-air restaurants and tourist information centres.
Abhijit Tripathi, an official of a private tourism company, says people booking for exclusive Swiss cottages are evincing great interest. “Tourists, especially foreign visitors at the Maha Kumbh Mela, have praised the luxury camps that have been offered to them.”
The issue of pollution in the rivers Ganga and Yamuna is increasingly becoming worrisome. Says Mahant Ramanand Das of Ram Ghat, Ayodhya, who relocated to Allahabad in 1968, “Pollution of the Ganga has become a major thorn in the proper conduct of our pujas. Some years back, the situation was so bad that even we holy men, who consider Ganga to be our mother and rever her sacredness, could not bathe in it, let alone drink from it. The water was stinking. Our major demand was that the administration (should) stop the flow of dirty water from the sewage drains and toxic waste from industries into the Ganga, which has been addressed to a large extent this year.”
In fact, pollution of the Ganga had been a major reason for the fracas created by the sadhus some years back when they sat on a hunger strike, demanding the administration give them their right to bathe and conduct prayers in peace.
But despite the pollution and dirt in the river, there are millions who take a dip in it to wash away their sins. “Their faith in the sacredness of the Ganga is immense. I salute them for their unwavering belief,” says the mahant.
However, for the lakhs of
devouts, these issues can hardly be any deterrents. For
the awe-inspiring sense of
fulfillment and experience of
a lifetime that the Maha Kumbh offers, they are willing to stake all else.