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A Bridge to Eternity

Bibek Debroy is chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council
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The Kumbh infrastructure is a feat but we could still manage our temple tourism better

HOW DOES ONE handle a phenomenon like the Kumbh Mela? Although one can’t quite associate Prayagraj or Kumbh Mela with a ‘temple’, quite a lot has been written about temple tourism, and Kumbh Mela is an example of this. Temple tourism is simply tourism associated with a religious activity, leading to an influx of tourists to a pilgrimage town, sometimes concentrated at a particular point in time. Figures will sometimes involve a little bit of guesswork. With that caveat, here is what I have found. In India, every year, 200 million people visit more than 2,000 pilgrimage towns. Tirupati draws 30-40 million, Padmanabhaswamy 20-25 million, Vaishno Devi 15-18 million, Shirdi 22-25 million and so on. Surveys conducted by the Ministry of Tourism report that 40 of the 50 most frequently visited places have religious significance and eight of the top 10 places visited are pilgrimage towns. For the current Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj, the expected number of visitors is a mind-boggling 150 million. A study says one out of every two Indians travels for religious purposes. What does this kind of influx do to a city and its ecosystem? What governance systems can be devised to handle it? Kumbh is a bit of an exception. It occurs once every 12 years, or if you like, because of Ardha Kumbh, once every six years. All kinds of temple tourism lead to what economists call externalities, positive and negative. Examples of positive externalities are tourism revenue and employment, urbanisation, growth, building of physical infrastructure. There are instances of villages having become towns because of temple tourism. However, there are also negative externalities, such as those associated with the environment. Remember the tragedies in Naina Devi (2008) and Kedarnath (2013)?

The UN World Tourism Organization defines tourism carrying capacity as the ‘maximum number of people that may visit a tourist place at the same time without causing damage to physical, economic and cultural environment’. I can refine that carrying capacity in terms of several parameters: physical carrying capacity, economic carrying capacity, social carrying capacity. Physical carrying capacity is only about whether the physical infrastructure can carry such a load. Rough estimates of physical carrying capacity are 1 million visitors at the same time, not more. Compare this with the kind of figures I have given for Kumbh.

Most of us have visited towns where there are temples. I think these temple towns can broadly be divided into two categories: those with a dominant shrine and those without one. Where there is no dominant shrine, governance is more informal than formal. Mathura and Vrindavan are examples of this. All pilgrimage- related services are provided by informal networks. Where there is a dominant shrine (Shirdi and Tirupati), it seems to work better. There is some public charitable religious trust that acts like a governance body and provides a range of pilgrimage-related services, inside and outside the temple. We know what these pilgrimage sites are. Many state- level tourism development agencies have identified sites with cultural or religious or heritage potential and have plans to develop them. I can think of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. There are also tourism circuits, linking multiple pilgrimage destinations, Delhi-Mathura-Vrindavan-Agra or Lumbini-Bodhgaya-Sarnath-Kushinagar. There are pilgrimage-driven tourist trains. But what happens once the pilgrim gets there? Ideally, there should be a master plan for the development of a town and its surrounding areas, perhaps with special provisions for it being a pilgrimage destination. Quite apart from the fact that master plans, when they exist, are often breached rather than honoured, they often have very unrealistic assumptions about the nature of a pilgrimage destination. For example, unless I have got it wrong, Shirdi’s development plan factors in a simultaneous visitor population of 25,000 to 30,000. Given the annual number I cited, this seems to be completely unrealistic. Therefore, even with a dominant shrine, you have chaotic development of hotels, resorts, dharmashalas, wayside amenities and residential apartments. I think it should be possible to do much better.

But let me bring this back to Kumbh Mela. Let me quote extensively from an Uttar Pradesh government document. ‘Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated 366 Facilities, with a cost of Rs 4048 crore, it is an initiative taken by the government for the development of Prayagraj and facilitate the Pilgrims of Kumbh Mela…. PM Modi has primarily inaugurated railway over bridge, railway under-bridge and flyovers, street lights, roads and cross roads. A new terminal at the Bamrauli Airport inaugurated by the Prime Minister will add on to connectivity of Prayagraj with other parts of the nation enabling more footfall of pilgrims and tourists with ease of travelling. With a cost of Rs 106 crore the flyover construction of 1325 meters has given ease of commutation to the locals in here. And the public works department with an estimated cost of Rs 725 crore has levelled and broadened the roads, along with levelling and putting up inter locking on the roads. The city has been lit up by LED Lights and 23 works of the electricity department are being inaugurated…. For better ordinated efforts, the Chief Minster through a legislation set up the Prayagraj Mela Authority (PMA), a permanent body to oversee all preparations including facilities to avert any mishap and provide safety and security to the pilgrims…. For accommodating the pilgrims a tent city with 1500 premium tents is beingerected…. The accommodation is being offered through a public-private partnership (PPP) arrangement. Besides accommodation, the tent city will have four convention halls…. As an event of such magnitude relies on transportation, the state government is undertaking upgrading of railway stations and the construction of the new Prayagraj Airport New Terminal. Simultaneously, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) is also upgrading major highways connecting Prayagraj to Pratapgarh, Raebareli, and Varanasi. 22 Pontoon Bridges, will facilitate the traffic movement in the meal area. The Inland Waterways Authority of India is meanwhile building five Jetties for pilgrims wanting to take ferry rides to the bathing ghats. For ensuring smooth movement of traffic, 116 roads are being constructed and widened by Public Works Department.’

Having visited the Kumbh Mela, I can assure you its management has been phenomenal. Both rivers are remarkably clean and full of water. The dips are well- managed. The bridges look beautiful, with LED lights. ‘What will happen to the LED lights when the Mela is over?’ we asked the driver of the car. “They will be taken away,” he responded. “If they are left there, people will simply steal them.” There is a temporary management of the Kumbh Mela and there is the legacy it leaves behind. The two are distinct. The pontoon bridges and jetties, like the LED lights, have nothing to do with the legacy. Once the Mela is over, they no longer remain. Brownfield urban management and infrastructure creation is always more difficult than something that is greenfield. The tents and convention halls mentioned in the quote are greenfield. PMA ensured this development in the Mela area, as opposed to Prayagraj city proper. But this is not permanent legacy either. As tangible legacy (there are always intangibles), what Kumbh Mela leaves behind is physical infrastructure— upgrade of railway stations and highways, widening of roads, new airport terminal, switch to CNG in public transport. As has been the case in the past, this Kumbh Mela will no doubt also figure in business school texts as a case study.

But my question still remains. Surely we can manage our pilgrimage sites better. Governments have become involved in the control and management of temples and temple trusts. We can debate whether this involvement should exist. Assuming the involvement remains, why can’t governments and temple trusts work better to ensure urban governance and management? If it can be done in Vaishno Devi, why can’t it be done elsewhere? I read somewhere that ISKCON is developing a township in Bengaluru. That will naturally be greenfield. However, I think better brownfield development is also possible. For a start, how about a geo-spatial database for prominent religious places to collect information on networks of physical infrastructure such as roads, water supply, sanitation, waste collection, electricity lines together with information of hotels and restaurants operating? Temple trusts can play a vital role in providing and collecting such information, as they already maintain datasets of number of visitor arrivals, lodging, food and transport, etcetera. How about such pilot projects in Vaishno Devi, Shirdi or Tirupati? We shouldn’t necessarily thrive on chaos and jugaad.

Also Read

Kumbh Mela: Leaps of Faith by Aditya Iyer
KumbhPolitik by PR Ramesh
A Blend in the River: A Photo Essay by Parul Sharma

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