Rajahmundry (Andhra Pradesh), July 14 (IANS) At least 27 pilgrims were killed and over 60 injured on Tuesday in a horrific stampede here at the start of the Godavari ‘Maha Pushkaralu’ — the Kumbh Mela of the south, officials and witnesses said.
The condition of some of the injured at the government-run hospital here was critical, doctors. The dead, all hailing from coastal Andhra, included 11 women and four children.
The tragedy occurred on the first day of the festival at one of the bathing ghats in Rajahmundry in East Godavari district on the banks of the Godavari river.
A large number of pilgrims at the Kotagummam Pushkar Ghat rushed towards the three gates and tried to scale them, leading to the stampede, official sources said.
The pilgrims reportedly tried to rush to the river as a holy dip in the early hours is considered auspicious.
Witnesses said the authorities had failed to anticipate the huge crowds at the ghat, and complained about lack of proper arrangements to regulate the pilgrims.
The Godavari Maha Pushkaralu, a once in 144 years event, began on Tuesday morning in both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, who had a holy dip at a VIP ghat in Rajahmundry minutes before the stampede, rushed to the control room to monitor the situation.
He announced that he will stay in the town till the event gets over. Naidu appealed to pilgrims to move to the other ghats, saying taking a dip at any ghat and on any day till July 25 was auspicious.
The incident forced authorities to open the VIP ghats to the public. Crowds were also diverted from overcrowded ghats.
Naidu, who later visited the hospital to call on the injured, announced an ex-gratia of Rs.10 lakh each to the families of the dead.
In a voice chocked with emotion, the chief minister said the incident occurred despite all precautions taken by the administration.
He said a comprehensive probe would be conducted after completion of the pushkaram.
President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi condoled the loss of lives in the stampede.
“Deeply pained… My condolences to the families of the deceased and prayers with the injured,” Modi tweeted.
Modi also spoke to Chandrababu Naidu over phone and discussed the situation.
Governor E. S. L. Narasimhan also expressed shock over the tragedy. Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao expressed deep condolencese.
Following the stampede incident in Andhra, Rao held a meeting with officials to review the situation in Telangana. He directed officials to ensure pilgrims’ safety and keep a contingency plan ready.
Thousands of pilgrims took holy dip in Godavari river on the first day of Maha Pushkaralu.
About eight crore people are expected to participate in the 12-day event, termed as Maha Kumbh Mela of the south, in both the Telugu states.
Though pushkaralu, dedicated to worshipping rivers, take place once in 12 years, this time it is Maha Pushkaralu, which takes place once in 144 years.
The chief ministers of the two states along with their family members took the holy dip around 6.20 a.m., the auspicious time, to formally launch the festival.
While Telangana Chief Minister Chandrasekhar Rao took the dip at historic temple town of Dharampuri in Karimnagar district, his Andhra counterpart Chandrababu Naidu performed the rituals at Rajahmundry.
While Telangana has constructed 106 bathing ghats in five districts, Andhra has made elaborate arrangements for the pilgrims at 280 ghats in East and West Godavari districts.
The authorities in both the states have deployed expert swimmers and kept rescue boats ready to meet any contingency. They have also set up control rooms to monitor the event. But the tragedy still occurred.