Kumbh Mela shows India can manage big projects using a broken public delivery system
In little over a week, the festivities of the Kumbh Mela, the pilgrimage spot for the Hindus located at the confluence of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati in Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad), will begin. On the peak day, Mauni Amavasya, an estimated 30 million people are expected to converge—probably the single biggest assembly anywhere in the world; it is twice the size of the population residing in the National Capital Region defined around New Delhi. The cumulative attendance is upwards of 70 million; given that it is concentrated over 2,000 hectares, the sheer density of population at the site is staggering.
Managing these devotees so far, without any major mishap, is a remarkable tribute to the state government of Uttar Pradesh—regardless of their political lineage, no government has been found wanting. Spread over 55 days, the site—located on the flood banks of the rivers, which emerge once the monsoon waters recede by November—is more than just a spiritual congregation that has been converging for the last 1,400 years. It is actually a terrific study of so many things. And given that its success is derived using an Indian public delivery system replete with all its warts, the lessons this pilgrimage event holds up are that much more compelling.
First off, Kumbh Nagar (as the place has been christened) is probably India’s first smart city. It comes up in about six weeks, once the flood waters recede, and dismantled when the religious congregation concludes. The patch of land, which keeps shifting depending on the contour of the river flow, is split up into grids—probably the best way to organize any urban set-up.
Thereafter, this space is earmarked into little settlements run by religious trusts or akharas managed under the aegis of a spiritual guru. Within this tenement, the entire management of the pilgrims—including feeding three meals a day—is the responsibility of the akhara. This autonomy empowers and at the same time tacitly acknowledges the diversity of the practitioners, each of whom pursue their own version of religious rituals. In fact, this facility—which provides for basic civic amenities, boarding and lodging and hygienic disposal of waste for a transitory population of this scale—has already attracted research as a model to house refugees. Five years ago, Harvard University sent an inter-disciplinary team, including one from urban studies, and concluded as much (bit.ly/2Ttm8D5).
This year, according to the state government, building the city entailed, in a span of few weeks, laying 300km of roads; constructing 1,795 pontoons to be used for developing 22 floating bridges; 1,030km of power lines; 800km of water pipelines; 850km of drains; construction of 122,000 toilets; and, provision of public accommodation with a capacity of 20,000 beds. It is a model India’s National Disaster Management Authority should adopt to deal with the fallout of rising extreme weather events such as the floods in Kashmir.
Second, the entire event’s success is premised on pilgrims subscribing to the crowd management rules—implemented by volunteers. Those who have witnessed this are struck by the ability of the populace to accept the rule of law—a very important takeaway for a country seeking to get beyond its seven-decade legacy of a discretions-based regime.
Third, flowing from the above, the big takeaway is that the successful organization of the Kumbh Mela proves that as a country “Yes, We Can”. It is very similar to the successful implementation of the goods and services tax (GST), which ushered in the era of “one commodity, one tax” regime, replacing 17 taxes and multiple cesses, and the transformation of the country into an economic unity for the first time. Essentially, it shows us that India can successfully implement complex projects of scale by using the very same broken public delivery system.
Finally, the congregation is a terrific repository of big data. Various arms of the government can piggy-back on the infrastructure, including the cellphone footprint of visiting pilgrims, to research issues like health, demography, communication and migration patterns.
Clearly, the lessons from the geography of faith are promising.
Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus.