In a tragic incident on the opening day of ‘Pushkaram’ festival here, at least 27 pilgrims, 13 of them women, died and 20 others injured in a stampede at a major bathing spot in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh, on Tuesday.
The victims, all hailing from coastal Andhra, include 11 women and four children.
A large number of pilgrims at Kotagummam pushkar ghat in Rajahmundry, a town in East Godavari district, rushed towards the three gates and tried to scale them, leading to the stampede.
Officials said pilgrims tried to vie with each other to reach the ghat as taking a holy dip in the early hours is considered auspicious.
The failure of the authorities to anticipate the huge crowds at the ghat and the lack of proper arrangements to regulate the pilgrims apparently led to the incident.
The pilgrims coming out after a dip and those trying to reach the ghat were caught in the rush at the gates. A survivor said officials did not heed to repeated appeals to open the gates.
The toll may further go up as some bodies were still believed to be lying at the spot.
A huge crowd of devotees from different parts of the state had gathered at the major religious event held once in 12 years when the incident took place.
The tragedy struck between 7.30 am and 8 am, and most of the victims were elderly people.
According to Rajahmundry Sub-Collector Vijaya Ramaraju, the bodies had been shifted to Rajahmundry Government Hospital and the injured taken to a nearby hospital.
“So far 27 have died …Most of the dead are elderly women,” Ramaraju said.
The victims had been waiting since early hours and some of them were tired as they had travelled long distances to reach here.
The official said there is a possibility that the deaths were caused due to suffocation.
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu, who was on the spot to take the holy dip, expressed profound grief at the tragedy and is personally monitoring relief and rescue operations.
A visibly disturbed Naidu, monitoring the situation from the control room, said, “This is very unfortunate and shocking. I have come here many times to review arrangements to ensure smooth conduct of the event. But some problems cropped up in execution.” He said a comprehensive probe would be conducted after completion of the pushkaram.
The Chief Minister also announced an ex-gratia of Rs 10 lakh for the family of the deceased and said, if necessary, he would remain in Rajahmundry for the next 11 days.
He also appealed to people to follow queues to entry and exit points, and move to other ghats. The incident forced authorities to open the VIP ghats to the public. Crowds were also diverted from overcrowded ghats.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, meanwhile, took to Twitter to pay condolences to the families of the deceased.
Several pilgrims complained that gates were not opened to enter the ghat which led to the stampede, and that drinking water was not available for those who were in the queues.
The pilgrims said they were waiting since early hours to enter the ghat.
Meanwhile, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao, YSR Congress president YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, Andhra Pradesh Congress president N Raghuveera Reddy, his party colleague and MP Chiranjeevi and a number of other leaders condoled the deaths in the stampede.
Jagan Reddy left for Rajahmundry to console the families of victims, a party release said.
Hitting out at the AP government, Chiranjeevi alleged that Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu claimed to have made grand arrangements, but it all came to naught.
Earlier in the day, Naidu, accompanied by his wife and son, had taken the holy dip, where the river is full in its expanse.
Godavari ‘Pushkaram’, the ritual of taking holy dip in the river, is observed once in 12 years, but this time it is considered auspicious from astronomical point of view as it is ‘Maha Pushkaralu’ which comes once in 144 years.
Kanchi Shankaracharya Jayandra Sarswathi was among the spiritual leaders who took the sacred bath.
The ‘Pushakaram’ is a similar to the ‘Kumbh Mela’ performed alongside rivers elsewhere in the country and taking holy dip is the main ritual of the religious event.