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Allahabad - Survivors of a stampede that killed 36 people at India's Kumbh Mela blamed the tragedy on Monday on baton-charging police and the slow response of medics as the massive festival's chief organiser resigned.
The crush at a train station on Sunday evening at Allahabad marked a tragic end to the most auspicious day of the 55-day Hindu festival in the state of Uttar Pradesh which had drawn some 30 million people.
Local officials said the railings on a bridge at the station had given way, while witnesses said police had charged the crowd with heavy wooden sticks known as lathis and triggered panic among pilgrims leaving the world's biggest gathering.
“I saw the police pushing the crowd and they were ... beating the pilgrims,” Abhijit Das, a 29-year-old pilgrim from West Bengal who was at the station when the disaster happened, told AFP.
There was also criticism of the response to the disaster, with relatives recounting how the emergency services took hours to reach the scene. At least 10 corpses wrapped in white sheets could be seen on a platform several hours later.
Among the victims was an eight-year-old girl called Muskaan whose distraught parents said she had died while waiting nearly two hours for help.
“Our daughter still had a pulse. Had the doctors reached in time she would have been saved, but she died before our eyes,” Bedi Lal, the child's father, told the NDTV news channel.
Speaking from his hospital bed after suffering leg injuries, Shashi Bhaduri recounted the mayhem at the scene.
“Suddenly there were at least a hundred people on top of me. My legs are so badly injured that I cannot even lift them now,” he said.
Apart from Muskaan, the dead included 26 women and nine men.
After the state government ordered an investigation into the tragedy, one of the driving forces behind the festival said he was resigning as a matter of honour.
“I have resigned as the chairman of the festival committee,” said Mohammad Azam Khan, who is also a cabinet minister in the state.
“Although the stampede happened beyond the scope of my jurisdiction, I am deeply disturbed and step down on moral grounds,” he told AFP.
Hindus believe a dip in the sacred waters of the River Ganges cleanses them of their sins. This year's Mela is enormous even by previous standards, with astrologers saying a planetary alignment seen once every 147 years made it particularly auspicious.
Police had been stretched in controlling the vast crowds as they reached their peak on Sunday, with officials saying the numbers had passed the 30 million mark by the evening.
A spokesman for the state government said the crush began after joints broke on railings attached to the bridge.
Railways Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal attributed the accident to the sheer weight of numbers at the train station.
“There are limitations of a railway system,” he told reporters. “Even if we have trains at 10-minute intervals, managing three crore (30 million) people may not be possible.”
Asked about the police tactics, the minister said: “We have no evidence of lathi-charge.”
The Kumbh Mela, which began last month and ends in March, takes place every 12 years in Allahabad while smaller events are held every three years in other locations around India.
In 2003 45 people died in a stampede during the festival in the western town of Nasik.
Crushes are a constant menace at religious events in India. The worst recent incident was in October 2008 when around 220 people died near a temple inside a famous fort in the northern city of Jodhpur.
At the Kumbh Mela on Sunday 30 000 volunteers and 7 000 police were on duty, urging pilgrims to take one short bath and then leave the waters to make space for the flow of humanity that stretched for kilometres.
The event has its origins in Hindu mythology, which describes how a few drops of the nectar of immortality fell on the four places that host the festival - Allahabad, Nasik, Ujjain and Haridwar. - AFP