Will chaos again rule this Durga Puja or will crowd control work?

Kolkata, Oct 7 (IANS) Almost a year after the “tallest Durga idol” in the world caused a stampede-like situation here, speculation is rife: Will chaos reign supreme yet again this Puja or will the authorities’ attempts at crowd control bear fruit and ensure the safety of hundreds of thousands of revellers who descend on the city this time of the year.

In 2015, the Deshapriya Park Puja Committee in south Kolkata had installed the 88-foot Durga idol, triggering a mammoth traffic blockade and a near-stampede situation that prompted the Kolkata Police to permanently close it to the public.

Experts debate whether it is sheer braggadocio or just the desire to please the ever-swelling pandal-hoppers that the organisers have shown “little restraint” in advertising this year’s sequel — a Durga idol with 1,000 arms slaying a 40-foot-high Asura.

“The advertising and marketing is still very much on. The number of visitors seems to be increasing each year. The organisers are also targeting more numbers. They are rather boastful of the footfalls. What compounds the problem is that there will be many who could not see the 88-foot idol owing to the shutdown and would want to revisit the same marquee for the sake of curiosity,” Indologist Nrisingha Prasad Bhaduri told IANS.

“Besides, there are two to three other famous celebrations close by which encourage people to throng this stretch of the city,” he added. You may impose traffic restrictions and other regulations, but how do you quell curiosity, he asked.

The fact that crowds were already visible around the Deshapriya Park canopy, even before the four-day puja formally started on Friday, corroborated Bhaduri’s contention.

There were also scores of questions on the theme posted on the organiser’s Facebook page. Interspersed were remarks from potential pandal-hoppers who have requested the organisers to ensure smooth crowd circulation.

“There is nothing to worry. Together with the Kolkata Municipal Corporation and the police, we have ensured everything goes smoothly. The access to the pandal is through barricaded channels and vehicular movement has been restricted in the area this time,” Sudipto Kumar, secretary of the organising committee of Deshapriya Park Durgotsav, told IANS.

Last year the pandal received around 1.2 to 1.5 million visitors. “This year we expect at least 10 per cent more. As many as 120 volunteers will be deployed and a section of them has been trained by the police to effectively manage the crowd.

“CCTV cameras have been placed at vantage locations to monitor movement,” Sudipto Kumar said.

According to him, the advertisements have been limited and the budget hovers around Rs 35 lakh, considerably less than last year.

“We didn’t do a pan-India campaign. But we intend to bring as many visitors as we can since they want to see the creativity and have a respect for the goddess,” Sudipto Kumar added.

The current sponsors, Emami Ltd, have aligned the “1,000 arms Durga” theme with their edible oil brand category.

“Since this is the time of the year when Bengalis, despite their modern, cosmopolitan lifestyle, crave for traditional Bengali cuisine that reminds them of the 1,000 myriad flavours and aromas of the delectable dishes prepared by their doting mothers, we found a thematic connect with the concept of Deshapriya Park Puja. We are, however, not organising this Puja,” said Debasish Bhattacharya, Vice President – Marketing, Emami Agrotech.

“General administration in and around the venue is under the purview of the Puja organisers and the law-enforcing and civic authorities. As an advertiser, the brand is not liable for the same,” Bhattacharya said when asked about the responsibilities of preventing a recurrence of the near-stampede-like situation last year.

Overall, it is a problem of plenty and solutions do not materialise in one fell swoop, said urban economist Mahalaya Chatterjee, who pointed to the fact that while the rest of the year the city witnesses a population drain, during the festive season it is the reverse.

“Advertisements and marketing gimmicks apart, how do you counter this paradox? There’s a huge influx of people from the rural areas into the city as they are employed in the construction and craftsmanship process of the pandals months before the celebrations actually start,” Chatterjee, Director of Calcutta University’s Centre for Urban Economic Studies, Department of Economics, told IANS.

Chatterjee advocated factoring in the unorganised sector as well.

“Not only that, the occasion is a chance to generate extra income. Anybody with some cooking skill can open up a food stall anywhere, leading to congestion in alleys… how will the administration regulate the unorganised sector? They also contribute to the mass of people who gather during this time of the year. A proper plan with set guidelines and protocols factoring in all the above is necessary,” Chatterjee added.

(Sahana Ghosh can be contacted at sahana.g@ians.in)