Space out please: We must invest in the wisdom of crowds

In India, over-population is sometimes blamed for worsening our crowd risk.
In India, over-population is sometimes blamed for worsening our crowd risk.


  • The ‘wisdom of crowds’ is a thesis on which democracy and markets rest, but every stampede should make us sit up and wonder—the Hathras tragedy being the latest. Here’s how India could nudge people towards collective safety.

Democracy and markets share a belief in the ‘wisdom of crowds,’ a thesis presented well by James Surowiecki in a book by that title which offers various examples of how numerous minds put together are smarter than a few. The antithesis of it, though, glares out from every news report of a stampede. 

Can a clash of that crowd thesis with its antithesis yield a synthesis? Say, the ‘common sense of crowds’? The question has arisen again as India mourns the 120-plus lives lost to another crowd crush, this time in a slushy field near Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, where an estimated 250,000 devotees had turned up at a religious gathering, although local authorities said approval had been given for just 80,000. 

As reports say, too many tried to converge too quickly upon the preacher who led that prayer session (for his blessings). High-toll tragedies of this kind have befallen several places of worship in the past. Recall the 2013 Ratangarh temple crush in Madhya Pradesh. Globally, the worst stampede on record took place in Saudi Arabia during Hajj, a pilgrimage of faith, on 24 September 2015. 

Also read: Hathras stampede: Bhole Baba was arrested in 2000; six sevadars held, key accused on the run - 10 things to know

Yet, the danger posed by crowd motion has nothing to do with religion. The same could happen in a packed hall hosting a rock show, which is why the risk of “fire" being yelled in such a space is often cited to argue why free speech mustn’t be an absolute right. Crowd-crush mortality is a universal worry.

In India, over-population is sometimes blamed for worsening our crowd risk. However, our population density is just 473 persons per square kilometre, according to 2021 World Bank data, so the crowds we see around us, especially in urban spaces, only reveal a problem of poor dispersal. We may number over 1.4 billion in all, but also have a vast landmass. 

It’s just that the lure of cities is so strong. But is there more to it? Has the experience of crowds also conditioned us not to get ruffled by overcrowding? The typical queue we form doesn’t have a gap of more than a foot. Taking public transport can be a struggle against suffocation. Milling together in close range occurs across the socio-economic pyramid. 

Also read: Overcrowding, suffocation inside tent, rush for ‘raj’ - What led to stampede at Hathras satsang?

Even lifts in fancy high-rises get stuffed beyond capacity, with little concern for anybody’s personal space. Or take the poshest of streets. Even if we have nothing but cars on them, crossings have them bumper-to-bumper, while the global norm is to leave a gap long enough to see the wheels of the car ahead touching the road. As for covid-time caution, the habit of social distancing seems to have worn off almost entirely.

Crowds can, of course, be calm and orderly. Whatever we are accustomed to, our mortality risk can be lowered. At the administrative level, we have crowd control guides, like the one issued by the National Disaster Management Authority. Authorities know how to decongest spaces and maintain order. But then, well-planned events with well-assigned roles are rarely a problem. 

What we need is not just to ‘manage’ crowds, but plug lapses in people’s consciousness of crowds turning risky. Perhaps we could revive some of the messaging we used during the pandemic and improve it. Witty posters that grab eyeballs, for example, could work. Safe behaviour takes constant reminders. 

Also read: Delhi airport shares smart travel tips to avoid congestion

Ultimately, it’s for people at large to assume responsibility for their collective well-being in the same way we expect an electorate to. Crowds needn’t always be wise, but do have common sense. Nudged towards their better selves, the toll taken by reckless mobs will drop.

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