How the World’s Biggest Religious Festival Tracks 250K Missing People
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The Kumbh festival in India is notorious for people going missing. Organizers finally have a fix.
By Vijay Pandey
It’s the largest religious gathering in the world. Every six years, millions of Hindus from across India and beyond travel to the north Indian city of Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad) in the state of Uttar Pradesh to bathe in the river Ganges, considered holy in the religion.
This unique festival, popularly known as the Kumbh, drew its biggest-ever audience this year, with more than 150 million visitors — for comparison, 2.4 million Hajj pilgrims visited Saudi Arabia in 2018. But the Kumbh has long been notorious for people going missing in the crush of humanity. Luckily, most of those who go missing today are now being found.
While as many as 40,000 people have gone missing in a day during the rush of the Kumbh, nobody has been permanently lost since 2013.
As many as 250,000 people go missing at the Kumbh each time it’s held, over a 45-day period. Unlike earlier, though, a combination of improved preparedness, technology and a dedicated police and citizens’ force ensures that, in most cases, families leave the festival reunited.
Sudami Devi traveled 230 miles to get to the Kumbh from Gopalganj in Bihar state. At the festival, she lost her son-in-law. “I took a dip in the river and returned back but couldn’t find him there,” she says. “I want to go home. My grandchildren are waiting for me.”
Citizens’ groups staff “lost and strayed” camps called the Bhule Bhatke Shivir at the Kumbh. This year, the Kumbh was held from mid-January to early March. Volunteers at the camps announce the names of people who’ve gone missing, telling them their friends or relatives are at the camp, looking for them. Often it’s just about finding a common place to meet for people who’ve lost each other. Prakash Upadhyay has volunteered at these camps before, and 2019 was no different. He says he finds fulfillment in his work when people are reunited.
Technology is helping. Here, a volunteer places a radio-frequency identification (RFID) card around a child’s neck. The RFIDs aren’t mandatory, but every pilgrim who registers for the Kumbh can opt for one, which volunteers can then use to track down someone who’s missing. At the 2019 Kumbh, 40,000 RFID cards were distributed.
The police play a critical role too. Once someone is reported missing, either to the police or to volunteers at the Bhule Bhatke Shivir, their information is fed into a computerized system where it is matched with an RFID card, when available. Information on the status of the search for missing people is also updated in the database. Here, SK Rahi, a security officer, mans a computerized lost-and-found center at the Kumbh.
What has also helped is that the festival is now spread out over a much larger area than before, with greater investments in security and infrastructure. The 2019 Kumbh took place over a 17-square-mile area, and the government spent $700 million on the festival. More than 3,500 loudspeakers made regular announcements, including descriptions of those reported missing.
Despite all of this preparation, losing someone in a sea of people can be traumatic. The Kumbh has spawned Bollywood tropes about lost twins finding each other decades later. Here, Deepa Pathak looks for her son Amit while tears roll down her cheeks. Amit, who is mute, has been missing for seven hours. “It’s been more than seven hours since I lost my son,” Pathak says. “Please do something.”
The largest number of people go missing during a ritual called the shahi snan, or “royal bath,” when millions gather simultaneously at 4 am for a dip in the river.
Pilgrims also need to watch out for thieves. Jeev, 65, took a bath in the river only to find on returning to the bank that all his belongings had been stolen.
Volunteers argue there’s a darker side to the phenomenon of people going missing. In some cases, they say, families use the melee to dump elderly parents or an unwanted girl child. Old women and children make up the bulk of those missing. But once the police or volunteers track families down, social pressures make it hard for them to not take back those they had hoped to lose.
And for those who’ve genuinely lost someone, there’s help today like never before. Here, people visit police booths to list family and friends who’ve gone missing.
Even in the age of technology, and with a computerized database, many police constables keep manual lists of people who’ve been reported missing so they don’t need to rely on computers while moving around the venue. Navi Hasan, who works with the Home Guard — an arm of the police — says they receive a missing complaint almost every minute. The Home Guards work around the clock.
If the missing person is carrying a cellphone, the police will first try to call them to determine if they’re nearby. The idea is to avoid clogging the lost-and-found system with complaints by relatives or friends who have panicked unnecessarily.
For those who’ve lost someone, the Bhule Bhatke Shivir and police camps offer a place to rest and meet others like them while they wait for family or friends to return.
And in most cases, they do find each other. Sudami Devi from Gopalganj, who lost her son-in-law, eventually found him. As did Sarwan Pathak, seen here, who found his mother eight hours after they were separated. Devi can now wipe away the tears of his mother.
- Vijay Pandey, OZY Author Contact Vijay Pandey