The Hatras stampede: A systemic failure in crowd management

The incident underscores a blatant disregard for safety regulations & reveals systemic negligence that continues to jeopardise public safety

On July 2, 2024, a devastating stampede at a religious congregation in Phulrai village, Hatras, Uttar Pradesh, claimed 121 lives. This calamity, which primarily claimed the lives of women and children, occurred as devotees were exiting a ‘satsang’ conducted by the self-proclaimed and in fad, Bhole Baba.

The incident not only underscores the recurrent failures in managing large gatherings at religious and public events but also highlights the vulnerability of specific demographic groups during such tragedies.


Eyewitness accounts describe a chaotic scene as 2.5 lakh people attempted to leave a venue designed for only 80,000. The situation escalated as attendees scrambled to get a glimpse of (now fleeing) Bhole Baba and collect soil from around his feet – after he announced it – resulting in overcrowding, panic, and ultimately, a deadly stampede. The subsequent transportation of bodies, both deceased and unconscious, in trucks and ‘tempos’ to local trauma centres and hospitals further revealed the inadequacies in emergency response mechanisms.

This tragic event is not an isolated incident in India’s history of stampedes at religious gatherings. In 2013, the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad saw 36 fatalities due to a stampede. The 2014 stampede at Gandhi Maidan in Patna during the Dussehra festival resulted in 32 deaths, while the 2015 Rajahmundry Godavari Pushkaralu festival in Andhra Pradesh claimed 27 lives. Each incident has exposed critical lapses in planning, inadequate crowd control and insufficient emergency response measures.

The recent incident in Phulrai village underscores a blatant disregard for safety regulations and reveals systemic negligence that continues to jeopardise public safety. It is also a glaring example of how large crowds can go hysterical in the spur of the moment without even realising the deterrent factors. They never do.

A look at globally and one is bound to find similar tragedies which have occurred with alarming regularity, highlighting a universal failure to learn from past incidents. The 2015 Hajj stampede in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, resulted in over 2,000 fatalities, and the 2005 stampede on the Jamarat Bridge during the Hajj led to 362 deaths. The Hillsborough disaster in 1989 in the UK, although a sporting event, similarly highlighted the dangers of overcrowding, resulting in 96 deaths.

More recently, on November 20, 2023, the Brazzaville crowd crush saw army applicants forcibly entering the Michel d’Ornano stadium during a recruitment drive, leading to a crush that injured 145.

The persistence of stampedes at large gatherings indicates a failure to learn from historical precedents. Effective crowd management is critical to event safety, encompassing comprehensive pre-event planning, real-time monitoring strategies, and rigorous post-event analysis.

Preparations should include predictive techniques such as simulation modelling to anticipate crowd behaviour, implementing structured pedestrian flow systems to facilitate movement, and deploying trained crowd managers to handle emergent situations.

Infrastructure design is pivotal in mitigating the risk of stampedes during events. Essential components include sufficient entry and exit points, clearly marked emergency evacuation routes and visible signage to guide attendees effectively. Utilising barriers to regulate crowd flow and prevent congestion-induced panic is crucial. Additionally, contemporary technologies like AI-driven crowd monitoring systems offer real-time insights, aiding organisers in making informed decisions to ensure crowd safety and optimize event logistics.

Regulatory oversight is indispensable for ensuring safety standards at mass gatherings. Stringent adherence to regulations under the Disaster Management Act and guidelines by authorities such as the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) is imperative. Regular safety audits and comprehensive training programmes for event personnel, law enforcement and emergency responders are crucial.

Public awareness campaigns play a crucial role in cultivating a safety-conscious culture among attendees of large events. Educating the public about the risks associated with overcrowding and emphasizing adherence to safety protocols can mitigate panic and enhance crowd behaviour, which is inherently unpredictable. Governmental and organizational responsibilities are paramount, with a need to prioritise safety measures over spectacle.

Moreover, behavioural counselling educates people on the importance of staying calm and following instructions during emergencies or large public gatherings. This is done through workshops and sessions on crowd behaviour and safety. Regulating entry and exit points prevents overcrowding, with electronic ticketing and RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification) tags used to monitor and manage attendee numbers. Organisers must ensure to restrict entry beyond the space capacity.

A personal incident at Banke Bihari Mandir in Vrindavan reminds me of the challenge of managing crowds, especially in narrow lanes leading to the sanctum sanctorum, where physical access can be even more difficult due to overcrowding. While this situation is generally accepted as an expression of faith, there is a critical need to address crowd management at the grassroots level to prevent potential disasters. Despite past incidents, societal memory appears short-lived, and lessons often remain unlearned, resulting in recurring debates on this issue when such unfortunate incidents recur.

Blind faith, characterised by uncritical acceptance and sincere devotion, can precipitate disasters during mass gatherings by compromising rational behaviour and safety protocols. Devotees, driven by intense religious fervour, often disregard personal safety and crowd management guidelines in pursuit of spiritual experiences or blessings. This uncritical zeal can lead to overcrowding, panic, and resultant stampedes, as witnessed in this tragedy. The inherent unpredictability of large, faith-driven crowds exacerbates the challenge, highlighting the need for stringent regulatory measures and public-driven education, to mitigate the risks associated with such gatherings and prevent future catastrophes.

Awareness programmes bridging the gap between faith and reason are essential in preventing tragedies at mass gatherings. These initiatives should aim towards educating the public on balancing religious zeal and emotions with practical safety considerations, fostering a culture of informed devotion.

Promoting critical thinking, adherence to safety protocols and emphasising the symbiotic relationship between faith and reason can ensure that spiritual experiences are pursued within a framework of rationality, safeguarding lives and enhancing participants’ overall safety and well-being at religious events.

For now, we can only hope that lessons have been learnt. It is but a hope against hope.

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