New Delhi - The Indian government on Monday blamed overcrowding for the stampede at a railway station in Allahabad that left 36 Hindu pilgrims dead, and dismissed witness accounts to the contrary.
Panic broke out on a footbridge between platforms at a station in the heart of the city, which saw an influx of around 34 million people for the Kumbh Mela festival on Sunday.
“There were too many people on the platforms. It was not possible for them to board trains immediately. The station was overcrowded. There was a lot of rushing,” Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal told reporters in New Delhi.
Railway officials estimated that about 200 000 people were at the station, which has a capacity of 40 000 at the time.
Some witnesses said the stampede was triggered when the railing on the bridge broke, while others said it had been caused by police using batons to control crowds.
“This is totally incorrect. The foot overbridge or railing did not collapse,” Bansal said. The railway had made adequate arrangements, scheduling 220 special trains to run between Sunday and Tuesday, he said.
The Uttar Pradesh state government ordered a probe to determine the cause of the stampede and said the inquiry would be completed within a month.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said he was “deeply shocked” by the deaths and ordered all possible help to the bereaved families.
A state cabinet minister who heads the organising committee of the two-month long festival resigned on Monday.
“Although the stampede occurred outside the Kumbh site, I am deeply disturbed and I take moral responsibility and resign as the official-in-charge of Kumbh festival,” Mohammed Azam Khan said.
The death toll rose overnight on Sunday, as more of the injured died and bodies were recovered.
“Of the 39 injured admitted last night, 11 were discharged today. Three among those hospitalised are still serious,” said Allahabad Chief Medical Officer Padmakar Singh.
Most of the injured suffered bone fractures.
“Suddenly there were at least a hundred people on top of me,” Shashi Bhaduri, among those was being treated in hospital, told the NDTV.
Singh said 26 women, nine men and a child were killed and 23 of the victims had been identified. The number of people missing in the aftermath of the stampede remained unclear, as people searched for relatives in hospitals.
Witnesses said deaths could have been prevented if the injured had been treated on time. They said just one doctor was at the station to handle scores of injured.
The parents of eight-year-old Muskaan who was injured in the crush said it took railway officials more than two hours to move her to hospital.
The Kumbh Mela takes place every 12 years and is considered the largest gathering of people on Earth. The festival, which features ritual bathing at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati river runs until March 10.
The worst stampede at the Kumbh Mela occurred in Allahabad in 1954 when more than 500 people died.
In 2003, 45 people were crushed to death during the festival the western town of Nashik. - Sapa-dpa