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Preventing large scale human disasters

Preventing large scale human disasters
Will it be a flood or stampede next? Maharashtra can expect more disasters if remedial action is not taken immediately.

Urban flooding, which was witnessed last week in Mumbai, has now almost become a regular annual feature. Such heavy water clogging normally occurs twice in one monsoon season. Immediately after the flooding (or sometimes during flooding) there are discussions on various television channels. During such discussions, there are charges and counter-charges by ruling and opposition parties. But there are hardly any engineering oriented discussions aimed at a scientific solution to the problem. Such fruitless discussions have been going on for the last several years.

I was caught in the heavy downpour of about 1,000 mm on July 26, 2005, at Mumbai. It took me about five hours to go from the international airport to domestic airport - hardly a distance of about four kilometres. Observing the scenario, we decided to stay put at the Santa Cruz airport parking area and spent the entire night in the car. At that time, I had suggested a solution.

This is what is known as the Tokyo experiment. A few decades ago, Tokyo had also witnessed the problem of urban flooding. To overcome this problem, the city’s flooded areas were divided in 2 x 2 or 2 x 3 square kilometres. In these areas, pipes were fitted with holes up to a depth of 300 to 500 metres. Excess water was drained through these pipes which opened into the sea with one-way valves. This prevented sea water from coming up the pipe. The initial results were encouraging and the experiment was subsequently extended to other areas.

A similar experiment could be tried in a couple of locations in Mumbai. Afterwards, depending upon results it could be extended to other areas. I had made this suggestion to the chief minister at that time.

Between August-September 2015, Nashik will host the Kumbh Mela - the biggest religious congregation which occurs every 12 years at each of its four venues (the others being Allahabad, Haridwar and Ujjain). The Maharashtra administration has been making suitable preparations for this event. However, it seems that the government’s preparations may not be adequate in managing the movement of crowds in large numbers in a limited area, during a short span of time. To provide adequate space for the large number of devotees, the administration wanted to cut down about 500 trees. The National Green Tribunal, however, did not consent to this move. The Bombay High Court soon backed the NGT’s decision.

The scarcity of space could probably lead to a stampede, which Kumbh Melas have been long associated with. The first such incident in independent India occurred at Allahabad on February 3, 1954, which killed about 1,000 people. During the 2003 Kumbh Mela at Nashik, there was a stampede again.

The administration is focussing on conventional methods to control the mass movement of people. The first and foremost reason for a stampede is the flow of people in two directions on one road. If there are two roads, separated by at least five metres or more with barricades on both sides to stop crossings, the chances of stampede could be reduced and mitigated.

Stampedes at religious congregations are quite common. During 2003 and 2006, there were three stampedes and two fires during the Haj. The then Saudi Arabian King requested the US to examine the Haj pilgrimage site and suggest suitable measures to mitigate a disaster. A team of US academicians visited the site and watched the video films of all previous incidents. The team suggested that a maximum of five people could stand in an area of one square metre. When the figure goes to seven, a stampede process begins and the deadly effect rises not in a linear manner but in geometric progression. This has been a very significant mathematical finding in rapid movement of masses in a small area.

How can this mathematical solution be implemented at the Nashik Kumbh Mela? To overcome this, there should be two separate gates and ways for entry and exit. These two gates should be separated by a distance of at least five to six metres or more. There should be an electronic counter on each gate and the total number of people who enter and exit should be displayed on the screens of both counters. In addition, the total number of people present in the area should also be displayed. Both the roads should have high bamboo fencing to avoid any cross-floor jumping. If an area is full, then nobody should be permitted to enter. This would definitely reduce the chances of a stampede. If the ground is too large in size, suitable barricades should be made to separate masses of about 10,000 to 20,000 people. This reduces the chances of a stampede.

Parking and movement of vehicles are always a big problem. To overcome this, it would be better to have the parking place near the main area. Inside the main area, a shuttle service of battery-run cars may be provided for movement. This would give more space for pedestrians, reduce pollution and would be easy for the police to control the flow of people.

As a member of the Bihar State Disaster Management Authority (BSDMA) this scheme was submitted by me to the state after it had witnessed a stampede on the occasion of ‘Raavan Dahan’ on Dussehra last year.

Effective control of large mass movement in a limited area within a short span of time is the only key to preventing a stampede. 

(Dr Arun Bapat is one of the world’s leading seismologists who had presciently predicted the 2004 tsunami. Views expressed are personal.)

Arun Bapat

Arun Bapat

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