Allahabad: Authorities sealed Allahabad’s main railway station and deployed riot police as millions of people tried to leave this city after taking part in Maha Kumbh festival’s biggest bathing day of Mauni Amawasya on Sunday.
The new security measures came after dozens died and more than 100 were injured in a stampede at a railway footbridge on Sunday evening.
Officials said 37, including 27 women and two children, died in the tragedy. Local media reports, however, suggested more than 40 were killed and blamed railway police for baton-charging pilgrims that triggered the stampede on footbridge number 1 at Allahabad Junction, around 10 km from Sangam, where more than 30 million arrived Sunday to take a dip at the confluence of rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. Officials said the victims were from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi , Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra states.
Head of railway police in Allahabad, however, denied his men beat the pilgrims on the footbridge. “The stampede happened after an old man slipped on the stairs and some more tumbled on him. This triggered a chain reaction leading to the stampede,” Lalji Shukla, deputy inspector general of police, told Gulf News on Monday.
“There is no question of a cane charge and we have no evidence to prove that my men mishandled the crowd,” he said, adding that “we were strictly regulating entry of people on the footbridge but there were just too many people trying to enter the station last evening.”
At 10.30am on Monday, a kilometre-long queue of men and women was seen outside the footbridge number 1. The situation was only marginally better as hundreds tried to reach the platforms that were brimming with people. A security officer said he had requested for more policemen to control the crowd fearing a repeat of Sunday’s tragedy.
Many pilgrims said they were waiting since Sunday evening to catch a train. Satindar Singh from Patna said his family of 13 men and women were trying to enter railway platform since 9pm on Sunday. So was K.K. Pandey who had a reservation in a train that was supposed to leave at 3pm on Sunday. On Monday morning he was still trying to enter the footbridge leading to platform on Civil Lines side of the station.
On the city side of the station, thousands sat on the road as all the gates were sealed to prevent crowding inside the station. Railways had built holding enclosures inside the station premises but on Monday these were empty after people were stopped outside.
Overwhelmed by the sea of humanity, railway authorities on Monday scrambled hundreds of trains to take people out of the city. At least 249 pairs of special trains were scheduled to leave in the next 24 hours, a railway officer said. But clearly this was not enough and their efforts were of little help for the hundreds of thousands who were desperately trying from railway stations in Allahabad city and neighbouring towns of Prayag and Naini. Each train has a capacity of 1,500.
As more details of the disaster emerged on Monday, it became clear that the footbridge accident happened after security officials attempted to ease pressure at Sangam where millions of pilgrims were participating in a mass bathing ritual. When the crowds at riverbank reached a tipping point on Sunday morning, people who had finished bathing were diverted on Triveni-Sangam Marg road leading to Allahabad railway station. “There was no place even to stand on this road,” said Shankar who lives near the station.
By evening several millions were trying to reach the station in order to leave this city. This had a devastating effect on the railways’ preparedness. The railways, it seems, failed to arrange enough trains to take people out of Allahabad fast enough. During the 24-hour period — Saturday midnight to Sunday midnight — unofficial sources suggested that against the government estimates of 30 million, more than 35 million arrived at Sangam. However, no official confirmation was available on the actual headcount.
— The author is Editor of XPRESS, a sister publication of Gulf News.