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This article was published in The Indian Express

By Mark Tully

India is not known for organisation, so it’s particularly gratifying to learn that the Maha Kumbh Mela of 2013 has been voted a success by a team of over 50 Harvard academics, students and researchers who came to Allahabad to study the world’s largest religious gathering. In this book, which is a report of their findings, the Harvard team from disciplines as diverse as divinity, business and governance, public health, science and arts have declared the Mela “a leadership and organisational success by any measure.” What’s more, they say it was organised in a “fast moving and highly dynamic environment which would normally be a ripe breeding ground for confusion”.

India is no stranger to confusion and that is why the much-talked-of jugaad, muddling through or miraculously rescuing a situation at the last moment is so common. But the Kumbh Mela, according to the Harvard team, was a carefully planned and efficiently executed operation.

In their report, the Harvard team lists the tasks that were achieved in the brief spell between the river waters receding at the end of October to allow work on the site to begin and January, when the Mela started. The tasks included laying 156 km of road with 18 pontoon bridges, and 770 km of electricity lines, providing 20,000 water tap connections and 40 active tube wells, 35, 000 individual toilets and 7,500 trench pattern toilets. An army of 12,461 state police had to be trained to man 30 temporary police stations. This was the infrastructure for “a temporary city which can host roughly the same number of people as mega-cities like New York and Delhi.” To describe the Kumbh as a “pop-up city”, which the team does throughout the report, does seem to me somehow diminishing a remarkable achievement.

The management of the Kumbh Mela was also a success, according to the Harvard team. They did not see “ hunger, uncontrolled fire, significant communicable disease outbreaks, nor major stampedes inside the grounds.” There was a stampede at Allahabad railway station on the most auspicious bathing day. The team blames that on the railways and “the subcontinent’s pervasive lack of a queuing culture”.

What enabled the government of Uttar Pradesh, a state renowned for ineffectiveness, to pull off this unique organisational triumph? It’s unique because of the short time-frame allowed for the construction of the city and the vast numbers who stayed in it, estimated at 70 million by the Harvard team. They attribute the success to the avoidance of practices which plague India. Random intervention by politicians and the government habitually undermines planning and implementation. But the Kumbh’s success, according to the Harvard team, “is attributable to constrained and selective government involvement, as compared to ubiquitous intervention.” Bureaucratic procedures were not the chronic problem they usually are. The prime minister, with his plans for smart cities, might take note of the finding that,“India’s handling of its rapid urbanisation is a far cry from the effectiveness displayed at the Kumbh Mela.”

While reporting on the last three Allahabad Kumbhs, I noticed a marked difference between the normal behaviour of the police and the behaviour of those handling the pilgrims. This seemed to me to be a major factor in the orderliness of the pilgrims. The Harvard team also remark on this when they say, “All actors involved in the organisation of the Kumbh are expected to have, and indeed do, show the greatest respect for the pilgrims.”

But, of course, the Kumbh isn’t just a unique feat of organisation and management. There would be no Kumbh if millions of Indians were not prepared to make considerable sacrifices to bathe in the Ganges at the Sangam in the mid-winter cold. Many spend nearly two months at the Kumbh in very primitive conditions. The distinguished Harvard scholar of religion Diana Eck, with Kalpesh Bhatt, has written a chapter in this report on understanding the Kumbh. They place sacrifice at the heart of the Kumbh, explaining that Prayag is regarded as “the foremost place of sacrifice” and the Kumbh “the best time to sacrifice”. There are sacrifices made by the pilgrims in getting to the Kumbh and living there, the sacrifices of the ascetics who die to the world when they are initiated into the akharas, the sacrifices of the leaders of religious organisations who set up camps, and the organisations and individuals who pay for everything except the infrastructure.

Spiritually, there is the sacrifice of the ego which many religious leaders told Eck and her team is “a common theme of the festival”. With it, comes humility and the willingness to sacrifice differences. So Eck and Bhatt conclude: “There is no other ecumenical event in the world held on such a vast scale where the ascetics and lay people from theologically disparate traditions coexist and coalesce.” The Kumbh is so ecumenical that one religious leader hosts a multi-faith dialogue between Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and Sikhs.

So the Harvard report demonstrates the efficiency India can achieve. It promotes what Eck and Bhatt describe as “the pluralism inherent in Indian culture.” Compare the tolerance of that pluralism with the hatred of the other provoked by some in the name of what they claim is Indian culture.

Mark Tully is a journalist and writer based in Delhi