Saturday, August 3, 2013

Observations on Kumbh Mela

I wrote the following write-up after a visit to Kumbh earlier this year in February.

Every 12 years, when the stars and planets are aligned just right, the annual Magha mela at the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati in Allahabad assumes a special significance and attracts an increasingly immense mass of humanity eager to wash away its sins and attain salvation by bathing in the holy waters. This year, during the months of January & February approximately 80-100 million pilgrims visited the Maha Kumbh to take the holy dip at the Sangam (the confluence)making it the largest human gathering ever. 

The humongous size of the mela naturally demands a proportionally huge administrative effort and planning. A temporary city spread over 1,900 hectares - divided into 14 sectors - is build within months on the sandy banks of the Sangam. Civic amenities like hospitals, sewage system, electricity supply lines and the roads etc. are built from scratch just before the commencement of the mela to be dismantled promptly after its conclusion. Around 11,000 police personnel, including the Provincial Armed Constabulary, are deployed for the maintenance of law and order and for crowd control. The thousands of Kalpwasis - the pilgrims and Sadhus who stay for a longer period at the mela - are provided with the daily food and civil supplies through 125 ration shops set up in the mela area. Clearly, the immensity of the whole administrative task cannot be overstated. And yet the Kumbh is regularly organized with relative success; a fact that becomes all the more exceptional given that it is organized by the administrative machinery of Uttar Pradesh - a state which is generally not known for its administrative prowess. A natural question thus arises - what explains the paradox that the same state machinery that routinely fails to provide basic amenities and services in the majority of towns and cities can build a temporary township quite efficiently and organize such a huge festival with relative success?

In the view of the authors, a major part of Kumbh's success can be explained by the coming together of the many favorable conditions, auspicious planetary positions not being one of them.

To begin with, the demographic of the pilgrims at the Kumbh makes it politically very relevant. The typical profile of a Kumbh pilgrim is a rural resident of the Hindi heartland who is religious and socio-economically belongs to the lower middle class. This socio-economic profile derives its political importance not only from its sheer numbers but also from its propensity to be one of the more active participants in the political process. Naturally, any state government wouldn't want to lose a chance to earn their goodwill.  

Not surprisingly, this has been the case almost throughout the history of the Kumbh mela at Allahabad starting from the time of Government of India Act, 1858. During the first half of the 18th century the Government of East India Company was largely indifferent to the religious sentiments of the masses. Some records show that it even levied the exorbitant charge of Re. 1 on the pilgrims coming to the Magh mela at Sangam. This naturally alienated the priestly class which fought British during the revolt of 1857. Subsequently, The GOI Act, 1858 made conscious effort to correct this and give greater freedom and respect for the religious aspirations of the people.

Further, as has been argued elsewhere (OECD, 2000), the two helpful conditions for better urban governance include: solidarity and subsidiarity. And both of these can be seen at work at the Kumbh.

There definitely is solidarity among the pilgrims at Kumbh. There's a commonality of purpose and interest - what the literature on pilgrimage frequently term communitas - unlike in more permanent settings where different sections jostle for limited resources for different and opposing interests. This solidarity obviously limits the scope for politics along the caste/religion/section faultlines and allows for a more coherent and focused approach of administration. Also, it helps that most participants are non-local who come to the site for only few months. This ensures that there are no permanent turfs that are protected through local politics and no privileged sections with in the mela. To be sure, historically there have been fierce turf wars between the Akhaadas and each of them still vie for favorable location in the Kumbh, but their difference are now resolved in during the meetings of Akhara Parishad and the Government officials before the mela. 

Also, the subsidiarity factor (" local autonomy, decentralisation and keeping government close to the people") is also at play at Kumbh to an extent. The mela administration provides the basic infrastructural services i.e. water, electricity, roads and police etc. reasonably well and then leaves it up to the Akharas to micro-manage their own sectors with reasonable autonomy. 

Finally, it must be said that despite its size the space-time framework in which the Kumbh is organized is still relatively quite small. To install new facilities and services is one thing, but the maintain and operate them on a sustainable basis is quite another. It is in the latter that the state generally lacks the capacity in the more permanent setting of Indian cities and villages.

So, even though Kumbh is a spectacular event organized with remarkable efficiency and skill, large part of its success still seems to be linked to the coming together of many different factors that are generally absent in more permanent settings of Indian cities and villages.

Observations on Kumbh MelaSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

No comments: