Eyes in the sky
The Kumbh Mela is said to be one of the world’s largest human congregations attracting tens of millions of pilgrims at any given time, obviously posing daunting challenges for the authorities in terms of logistics and crowd safety. Whilst the Kumbh happens every 12 years with the last one in 2013, there is also a mini annual event called the Magh Mela. “Each year, devotees from all across the country congregate at the spot where the Ganges, Yamuna, and mythical Saraswati rivers converge at Prayagraj in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. There, devotees dip in the water, which they believe cleanses them of their sins.” Friends who returned from the last year’s festival marvelled at the hospitality and the efficient management of the event at such a large scale. This article is a refreshingly positive take on the Indian state machinery, often tainted for its corruption and inefficiency. It talks about the high-tech surveillance infrastructure involving artificial intelligence enabled camera systems to facial recognition technology and automated vehicle number plate recognition systems built to estimate crowd density and avoid disaster at such a massive scale. The festival with a long history of stampedes went uneventful last year, thanks to this.
“Over 49 days last year, more than 250 million people took a dip in the sangam, the point where the three rivers meet, with the biggest one-day crowd reaching 50 million. It was the second-largest gathering in history….
…To prepare for the melas, tens of thousands of officials spend months setting up a massive temporary city on the banks of the Ganges. Viewed from above, it is a colorful patchwork divided by big and small bodies of water. Much of this — tents, floating bridges, and metal sheet roads — is built specifically for the festival. As the riverbed floods every year, the city lasts for only several months before the Ganges threatens to reclaim the land.
…This year’s mela was spread over 270 hectares (667 acres), about 30% bigger than Monaco, and divided into six sectors for administrative purposes. Setting up the infrastructure was — and is — an immense logistical feat. The mela has 13 police stations, 40 police outposts, and five thermal power stations. There are five hospitals with operation theaters and 25 beds each, as well as labs, testing facilities, and on-site ambulances. All of this requires a substantial budget. For this year’s mela, the state government budgeted $77 million. Last year, for the Kumbh, it spent $558 million.
…The key tool in the ICCC’s arsenal is the crowd management application (CMA) system, which keeps an eye on crowd density across all 700 camera feeds. The system is taught how much ground area each CCTV camera covers, which then allows it to estimate, with 85% accuracy, the number of people in a space at any given time. If there are more than three people per square meter, the system issues a warning, and the ground police team is notified and instructed to stop, hold, or divert the crowd.
…Hanging over that moment was the memory of the 2013 Kumbh, when a stampede led to the death of 38 people at Allahabad railway station. The exact sequence of events remains contentious, but an inquiry found that North Central Railways authorities had underestimated the crowd size and hadn’t arranged enough trains, while the state government failed to deploy nearly 6,000 buses to relieve pressure. Police also bungled crowd management. This wasn’t the first time that such a tragedy had occurred: since 1820, there have been more than half a dozen stampedes at Kumbh Mela celebrations. In 1954, at the first Kumbh in independent India, up to 500 people died and more than 2,000 were injured when panic broke out.
This time, however, cameras equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) had already flagged areas where human density had reached unsafe levels and alerted officials about an impending stampede. It was the first time that an AI-based crowd management application had ever been used in India. Additionally, in advance of this year’s mela, railway authorities had collaborated with the Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology to develop a crowd-simulation tool that could calculate the amount of time a person takes between entering the station and boarding a train. Extrapolating from that, they estimated that the Allahabad station could handle 10,000 mela passengers in an hour and took measures to keep people safe.
At the ICCC headquarters, authorities issued instructions to cordon off the Johnstongunj junction on the way to the train station and told police on the ground to form a human chain around a 15,000-person crowd. An additional 30,000 people were diverted to a 16-hectare (40-acre) garden to keep them away from the roads. To clear out the train station, the ICCC used camera feeds to estimate the number of additional trains the railways needed to run. By the end of the day, 75 trains had been added, and 300 passenger trains already scheduled to pass through the station were each set to accept between 500 and 1,000 departing pilgrims.”