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Pilgrims Regress

Little or nothing was done to set things right even before this crowd-puller of a profoundly religious occasion.

Editorial | Kolkata |

In comparison to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal has mercifully been spared the stampedes that have almost routinely marked religious gatherings in Northern India. More the pity, therefore, that at least five Janmashtami pilgrims were killed and no fewer than 26 injured when the arduous annual trek by hundreds of barefooted men, women and children concluded at Kachua in North 24-Parganas early on Friday.

The spirited chant of Bole Baba/Bom Bom, amplified through the tannoy in good measure all along the route, has been silenced and eerily so. The eptaph of this year’s festival can be as stark as that. The fact that the mishap has occurred in the holy of holies deepens the enormity of the tragedy that has befallen the spirited foot-soldiers of a vigorous faith. In a sense, the tragedy isn’t confined to Kachua; Janmashtami and the birthday of Baba Lokenath routinely draw pilgrims from across the state.

On closer reflection, Friday witnessed yet another instance of the failure of crowd management, compounded by the lack of volunteers. It is more than obvious that the district authorities failed to tackle the overwhelming panic that followed the collapse of a wall at the Kachua Loknath temple, where thousands throng the sanctum sanctorum. That sense of panic intensified when bamboo structures and makeshift structures next to the wall also collapsed. Reports suggest that the boundary wall was virtually dilapidated, a testament to poor maintenance by the temple management.

Little or nothing was done to set things right even before this crowd-puller of a profoundly religious occasion. Quite a few were driven quicker to death than to the eagerly awaited darshan and Baba Lokenath’s ritualistic “bath”. Prudence would have accorded the uppermost priority to safety. Tragically at Kachua, the arrangements were far from fool-proof. Sufficient and sturdy covering of the ground ought to have been in place long before it started to rain on Thursday-Friday midnight, and torrentially so. This would have protected the pilgrims who slipped in the mud and slush at an inhospitable hour… to suffer grievous injuries. At least ten pilgrims have sustained “critical injuries” and are now being treated in hospitals across Kolkata.

Kachua doesn’t boast the minimum in public healthcare, a testament to the callous indifference that plagues healthcare in rural Bengal. By every conceivable parameter, it was a poorly managed ritual during which the pilgrims were expected to fend for themselves. Confusion was made worse confounded when the temple wall collapsed; that it did was no less an outcome of human failure. Baba Lokenath’s temple bears witness to how the pilgrim’s progress can be reduced to pilgrim’s regress. Their patience sorely tried after the long trek, the pilgrims definitely deserved better both from the authorities of Baba Lokenath Temple and the district administration.