Is Guwahati staring at a Mumbai-like disaster?
On September 29, a pedestrian bridge connecting two stations -- Ephinstone Road rail station and Parel rail station – at midtown Mumbai, which usually remains crowded round the year, got an unusually heavy footfall of more than 30,000-40,000 persons due to a sudden downpour and the ensuing festive season. This resulted in a stampede which can be termed as one of the greatest tragedies of the city and has also raised serious questions on the crowd management measures taken by the authorities in the cities of the country.
Crowd management in cities becomes a bigger concern owing to the fact that the population in the cities are increasing by leaps and bounds against a rather sluggish growth of the urban land area.
According to the census report, urban population in the country increased from 11.4% in 1901 census to 28.53% in 2001 census, and according to the 2011 census, stands at 31.16%. But the urban land area has increased by only 10% due to which, currently, 400 persons cram into a mere one square kilometre of urban space.
“Guwahati being a transit point and the only link connecting the northeast with the rest of India has seen unprecedented growth of shifting crowds. According to the census report (2011), population of the city might be 9.57 lakhs. But, those are only the permanent residents. While, if we include those who come here from other parts of Assam and the rest of northeast for work and education, the population should be more than double the current figures. The disaster management authorities should prepare for the swollen up population and concentrate on the infrastructure development of the city to avoid Mumbai-like disasters,” Kailash Sarma, general secretary of a city-based non-governmental organisation, Save Guwahati, Build Guwahati said.
The Mumbai stampede, however, acted as a wakeup call for the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA). According to the state project coordinator, Rajib Prakash Baruah, the authority is surveying the vulnerable areas and is concentrating on crowd management while providing mock drills.
City infrastructure not enough, feel residents
The city, besides being a Seismic Zone 5, is also likely to face crowd-related disasters if the current infrastructure is not upgraded, opine residents.
“Most of the city’s infrastructure is getting old and incapable of holding the city’s growing population. The pedestrian bridges over the railway stations and the roads are incapable of taking the load of a few hundred people,” Jayanta Kalita, a resident of Pan Bazar said.
He said that Guwahati has not shown much signs of growing in terms of area over the last two decades and with a surge of people from other parts of the country coming in to work here, certain areas of the city are showing higher concentration of persons per square kilometre.
Another resident, Bhagya Saikia said, “Guwahati does not have much scope of growing in terms of land. On two sides, it is confined by the Brahmaputra River, while most other is either hills or forest lands. The city needs to upgrade its available infrastructure.”
They pointed out that now the five pedestrian bridges – at Maligaon, Bharalu, Shukreshwar, Ganeshguri and Lachitnagar – are not being used properly. But, during times of emergency, these will fall short if more people start commuting on them.
“The real reason for the stampede on the Mumbai foot bridge is not certain yet, but one of the reasons was the sudden downpour due to which, more people gathered there for shelter. Guwahati has the problem of flash floods and if that happens, and more people start using the foot bridges, these will not be able to allow more than a few hundred people at a time,” Saikia added.
Ruma Kalantri, a housewife also pointed out that the footbridge at Guwahati Rail Station that connects the platforms of the rail station and Paltan Bazar with Dighalipukhuri and used by railway passengers and city commuters alike, is incapable of carrying a huge mass of people.
“The foot bridge is not exclusive to the rail passengers only and is widely used as a shortcut from Paltan Bazar to Dighalipukhuri. At times, when there are at least two or three trains leaving around the same time, the foot bridges get over crowded,” Kalantri said.
Guwahati crowd movement has a different pattern, says ASDMA
Crowding on a daily basis might not be much of a concern, but the city sees an exponential rise in population during various religious occasions and events, ASDMA said.
“The infrastructure in the city is enough for its residents, but the city has a very high shifting population. During various occasions such as Durga Puja, Diwali, Bihu, Eid, Ambubachi Mela etc., certain areas of the city attract the bulk visitors. Also, during the various concerts and sporting events, people from Meghalaya and even from Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh come to the city. This leads to crowding during those particular events,” Rajib Prakash Baruah said, when asked if crowding is a problem relevant to Guwahati.
If not for the shifting population, crowding would not have been a problem relevant to Assam and its capital city Guwahati as according to the 2011 census report, Assam has shown a very sluggish urban population growth with more than 84% still living in rural areas.
Guwahati has seen a surge of such events after the football tournament, Indian Super League (ISL), started in 2013. The ISL, in which Northeast United FC is one of the nine teams, attracts football fans from all over the northeast, especially Meghalaya and Nagaland.
“The events are especially tough to manage as we do not have any idea about how many people are gathering. The venue consists of people who have the tickets, people who are looking for tickets, the fans and organisers,” Baruah said.
ASDMA forms response teams to thwart disasters
The infrastructure development is for the long term, but ASDMA is concentrating more in creating awareness through workshops, seminars and demo sessions and by forming quick response teams for such crowd-related disasters.
“We are going to concentrate more on crowd management during the disasters. It is the same drill for post disaster evacuation. Most of the times it is seen that whenever instances of such crowding or stampede or any disaster occurs, there are very few people around who have the expertise to manage the crowd. Due to lack of quick response, most damages are caused. So, we will start with government organisations and the hotels where we will conduct workshops, mock drills and hold seminars which will later teach the employees under them,” Baruah said.
“Most of the crowd related disaster threats are from the religious and other occasions. Before any such occasion, we form several quick response teams consisting of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), State Disaster Response Force, Assam Fire and Emergency Services personnel and ASDMA personnel. These people take rounds of the venue,” Baruah further added.
Meanwhile, the Guwahati Railway Police is studying the crowd movements at the rail stations and will man the bridges accordingly.
“Post the Mumbai stampede, we have started studying the crowd movement and will put into time brackets the times when the foot bridges and the platforms receive the highest crowd. After that, we will deploy more patrol personnel during those peak times,” Pankaj Kalita, officer-in-charge of Guwahati railway station said.