An estimated 10 million people bathed in the Ganga on Monday, the first day of the ongoing Maha Kumbh Mela at Allahabad. It is billed as the biggest single religious gathering in the world.
Behind the massive show of religious devotion is a quiet secular machine that services the millions who pour into Allahabad for the Kumbh Melas. The details are mind boggling. The crowd on the main days is large enough to be visible from space satellites. Some 25,000 tonnes of foodgrains are sent to feed the pilgrims. About 700,000 tents are erected to house the visitors. Pipes have to be laid so that clean drinking water is available. A temporary super-specialty hospital has been built for anybody who falls seriously sick. Thirty-one police stations and 41 police check-posts have come up to maintain law and order. Massive television screens flash information about missing people. Thirty-six fire stations will get into the act in case there is a conflagration.
The entire effort is so unique that it has attracted the attention of Harvard University. Six of its departments are collaborating to understand the Kumbh Mela phenomenon: the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Divinity School, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Harvard Business School, Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health.
The South Asia Institute at Harvard notes on its website: “A temporary city is created every 12 years in Allahabad to house the Kumbh Mela’s many pilgrims. This city is laid out on a grid, constructed and deconstructed within a matter of weeks; within the grid, multiple aspects of contemporary urbanism come to fruition, including spatial zoning, an electricity grid, food and water distribution, physical infrastructure construction, mass vaccinations, public gathering spaces, and night-time social events.”
The megacity that magically pops up at Allahabad during the Kumbh Mela is as large as New York, London and Paris combined. The sheer scale of the effort shows that the Indian state machinery, usually a creaking mess, can be galvanized into action when there is the will to do something. The lack of state capacity is one of the weak links in the Indian development effort, and the recent New Delhi rape highlighted its inability to even adequately perform its basic duty of protecting citizens.
What happens in Allahabad during the Kumbh Mela is thus a ray of hope because it demonstrates that a massive city can be built, managed and dismantled in a few weeks. If only such administrative excellence were allowed in our permanent cities.