Monday, March 11, 2013


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From: Ram Narayanan
Date: Mon, Mar 11, 2013 at 12:28 PM
To: Ram Narayanan




Could Hindu festival 'pop-up megacity' be an organizational model for India?

By Victor Mallet | Financial Times,

Mar 01, 2013 04:50 PM EST

The Washington Post

ALLAHABAD, India — Onno Ruhl, head of the World Bank in India, calls it "an incredible logistical operation." Harvard researchers describe it as "a pop-up megacity".

On the sandbanks of the Ganges River at Allahabad, bureaucrats and workers from Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state and one of its poorest, took less than three months to build a tent city for 2 million people — complete with hard roads, toilets, running water, electricity, food shops, garbage collection and well-manned police stations.

Organizers do much the same every three years – although on a particularly large scale every 12 years, as in 2013 – for the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu festival celebrated in turn at four different locations on the Ganges.

This year's event, a combination of religious worship and medieval funfair, has attracted millions of pilgrims from across India who come to wash away their sins in the Ganges at its confluence with the Yamuna. During its two months to mid-March, the mela will have attracted 80 million to 100 million faithful. Up to 30 million attempted to bathe on Feb. 10 alone, officials say.

Precise numbers are hard to estimate, but devotees and foreign visitors are generally full of praise for the organizers of what is arguably the largest gathering of humans on earth.

Apart from a Feb. 10 stampede at the nearby Allahabad railway station in which 36 people were killed, the Kumbh Mela itself has so far gone smoothly. Fresh water comes out of the taps. Toilets are disinfected. Trained police carefully shepherd the crowds to the bathing ghats. The lights come on at night.

In the minds of both Indians and foreigners, this raises important questions: How? Why? Or, if the authorities can build infrastructure so efficiently for this short but very large festival and its instant city, why can they not do the same for permanent villages and towns?

The World Bank's Ruhl, who was moved to bathe in the Ganges himself when he visited the Kumbh Mela this year, says the city on the sandbanks, soon to be dismantled before the river floods, "has water, sanitation, power, solid waste management, everything, actually, that many Indian cities lack".

"To somebody who does projects, it's like a mega-refugee camp that came up overnight and gets sustained and managed for two months with people filtering [in and out] at a rate of millions a day. I've never seen anything like it in my life. . . . It's managed by the UP [Uttar Pradesh] government. . . . If somehow we could translate that capacity to day-to-day business, you could transform UP. It's a really powerful thought."

Uttar Pradesh is often seen as the epitome of all that is wrong with India. With a population of more than 200 million – larger than Brazil's – the state is notoriously corrupt and inefficient.

Take sanitation. In the decade to 2011, the UP government reported steadily rising construction of latrines in rural areas with the help of $600 million in public funds. But the 2011 census showed that almost no toilets had actually been built. Most of the money was stolen, leaving tens of thousands of children to die each year as a result of diarrhea spread by what one aid worker called "appalling" sanitation.

There are few such problems at the Kumbh Mela, however. Devesh Chaturvedi, a senior official who is divisional commissioner of Allahabad, is proud of the "huge task" that he and perhaps 100,000 workers have completed in organizing this year's festival.

He mentions 100 miles of roads made by placing steel plates on the sand, 18 pontoon bridges, 347 miles of water supply lines, 400 miles of electricity lines, 22,500 street lights and 200,000 electricity connections, as well as 275 food shops for essential supplies such as flour, rice, milk and cooking gas.

Chaturvedi agrees there is a contrast between the successful provision of these services and the way life continues in the rest of the state, and has two explanations. First, the authorities ensure that all those working on the project are accountable for their actions and the money they spend. Second, those involved are highly motivated.

"They feel it's a real service to all these pilgrims who have come here, the sadhus [holy men] and the seers, so it's a sort of mission which motivates them to work extra, despite difficult working conditions."

Good organization and efficient infrastructure, in short, are no more impossible in India than anywhere else. "The lesson is, it can be done," says Bhagawati Saraswati, a Californian-born Hindu devotee camped on the river bank with other members of an ashram based on the upper Ganges.

She notes the "phenomenal" number of man-hours and employees devoted to the Kumbh Mela, but says the event still shows that India can organize itself.

"It's an amazing lesson," she says. "What it means is: India can do it. All of the villages, all of the cities can have electricity, they can have running water, they can have roads. That attention, that focus, that clarity, that commitment, just has to be there."



Memsahib's Diary: An astonishing, incredible Kumbh Mela!


By Christine Pemberton on February 24, 2013


This week's diary comes with a warning.

The memsahib is in full OTT, clichéd, gushing, waxing-absolutely-lyrical-about-India mode. And all thanks to a magical few days at the Kumbh Mela.

To say "I have never seen anything like it" is a truism. But I trust you know what I mean when I repeat – I have never, in 30 years of knowing India – never, ever seen anything remotely like this.

It wasn't so much the massive crowds, which were still massive despite having been considerably thinned out by the torrential rains and flooding of February 15. It wasn't even the impressive organisation and policing, to which I shall return later.

It was rather the total absence of any form of aggression or ill temper or quick temper, or any of the other sparks that can so easily ignite a crowd. I have never, ever, anywhere in the world seen such huge numbers of people coexisting in such apparent harmony and good nature.

The river bank is crowded, at all times of the day, and people pour in a never-ending stream, carrying luggage, clothes, food, babies, and they all head instinctively for the sangam. A small space is found amidst the crowd, to deposit luggage on the damp straw that covers the river's edge. People strip down — in that amazing Indian way in which one can change in public and show not an inch of flesh. No one stares, no one takes any particular notice of anyone else. Thousands upon thousands of people, all cheek by jowl, stripping off, drying off, praying, laughing, snoozing, eating, doing their small family puja, lighting diyas, taking their sacred dip – and all in such an aura of harmony and good nature.

Everyone's default setting at the Kumbh seems to be 'smile'.

Let me give you one small example. There we were early one morning, two of us, wandering along the crowded river bank, weaving our way through the thousands of people. A voice suddenly said, "Memsahib, sorry." I turned to see a man, shivering and wet and wearing only underpants. He was pointing at my shoe. To my horror I saw that I had somehow managed to walk over his pile of dry clothes without realising it, and there were his dry underpants caught on my shoe, and I was coolly walking off with them. I was mortified and apologised profusely but all he did was smile and say, "Koi baht nahi madam" and wander off as good-natured as you please.

Not an iota of irritation with a clumsy foreigner. I am not sure I would have been so magnanimous had roles been reversed.

Photography of people bathing is not allowed. Makes sense. We hadn't realised this until a policeman came up to me, and asked in the sweetest way possible if I would mind not taking photos of people bathing. I had actually been taking pictures of women drying their saris, and told him so. Good, he smiled, and walked off.

The police were exemplary. Omnipresent and so polite and courteous. Policing was uber-visible, signage was excellent, there were constant loudspeaker announcements about a lost child, or about someone who had got separated from their group, or politely asking people to park properly.

And as for the cleanliness… Litter bins everywhere, that were (oh, rare thing in Delhi) regularly emptied.

There were people armed with what looked like large shrimping nets, constantly scooping out the flowers and diyas and anything else that made its way into the river, and the water looked astonishingly clean.

And so we wandered up and down the river banks, through the camps and through the crowds, marveling at the departing Naga sadhus, watching elephants being given offerings, shopping for trinkets, and eating the delicious (free) food given at many camps. There was a huge noisy busy buzz, coupled with an easygoing friendliness, if that makes any sense at all. Everyone was there with a great sense of purpose, and that purpose was (it would seem) only a happy one. Pray, take that very important holy dip, and then enjoy the mela.

So, India/UP Government/Mela organisers — shabash. Take a bow. Fantastic organisation, great crowd-control, fabulous policing.

Incredible India at her absolute noisy, colourful, moving, incredible best.

(I did warn you at the outset that this was going to be a gushing diary.)

See also






sent from samsung galaxy note, so please excuse brevity

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