Kumbh Mela festival: a sanitary challenge of mammoth proportions

A cleaner at the Kumbh Mela festival. Photo published by Amitava Sanyal on Flickr
 
It’s tipped to become the biggest gathering of human beings on earth. Millions of Hindus have already started pouring into the northern Indian city of Allahabad for the Kumbh Mela festival. Such a large-scale event poses unfathomable challenges for organisers, especially when it comes to sanitation.
 
Over 55 days, somewhere between 30 and 60 million pilgrims are expected to bathe in the waters where the Yamuna and Ganges rivers meet. The first dip took place on Monday, and pilgrims from across the world will continue to arrive until February 25 to cleanse their sins and reaffirm their faith at the festival, which takes place every 12 years.
 
Health clinics, markets, police stations and sanitation systems have sprung up on a humble floodplain. Twenty-thousand lampposts have been erected, and there are four temporary power stations providing electricity. It’s no mean feat constructing a ‘pop-up mega city’ within a matter of months.
 
"Holy men" at the Kumbh Mela festival. Video published on YouTube.

"Cleaners are the lowest-paid employees, and they're working around the clock"

Amitava Sanyal is a journalist at the Kumbh Mela. He gave us a first-hand account of the hygiene challenges the festival’s organisers face.
 
The numbers are huge. There’s no way to count the crowd, you can only experience it. People stream pass you like water; you have to be careful, or you’ll wash away with them!
 
The Indian government set up a special administration body about a year ago that is responsible for the smooth-running of the festival. They’re under a lot of pressure to make sure the festival is absolutely perfect. There are millions of potential voters out there, and a lot of influential people come to the Kumbh.
 
But the people who make it work are the cleaners. They’re the lowest paid, and they’re working around the clock. There are thousands of street cleaners, then there’s a smaller group that cleans the water.
 
The administration fixes specific times for the “holy men” to dip. [The term “holy men” encompasses Hindu monks and men considered to be saints]. There are lots of different camps of holy men, and they all want to take their dips first, because they want the water to be clear. People take dips in the water every day, but when the holy men take their dips it attracts big crowds - people want to dip at the same time as the holy men.
 
The dips are staggered – there’s always a half hour gap between each dip, so the cleaners and can go into the waters and clean. They don’t use chemical products; they fish out any objects left behind, like the flowers people take with them to bathe.
 
The administration has divided the festival into 14 different areas. I went to an administration meeting on Tuesday, where they discussed how the festival was going. It seemed the weak links were water and sanitation - water leakage, not enough taps. Simple issues, big impact.

"Fifty-thousand kilolitres of water are distributed to festival-goers each day"

A 35-strong team of Harvard professors and students will be at Kumbh Mela this year studying the festival’s logistics, keen to find out how a ‘pop-up mega city’ works. Satchit Balsari and Gregg Greenough are from the Harvard School of Public Health.
 
It’s an impressive operation. It’s mind-boggling to see how the administration organises the festival. There are 46 tube wells, which are linked up to taps around the site. The system is designed to distribute 50,000 kilolitres of water a day.
 
In the run-up to the festival, I saw latrines being constructed [Editor’s note: there are around 35,000 single-seat latrines, 340 blocks of 10-seat toilets, and 4,000 urinals on-site]. They’re linked by a 165 kilometre network of plastic pipes which carry the waste to pits, which themselves are reinforced by brick. It’ll be interesting to see how many new latrines and pits the administration will have to build, as what they’ve built so far may not be enough.

"Waterborne diseases and a cholera outbreak are real risks"

People do not always use the toilets, particularly children – they just go in the open air. There are 9,000 sweepers, whose job it is to sweep away faeces into the pits.
 
Waterborne diseases and a cholera outbreak are real risks. We hope to carry out research that will help the administration prevent the impact of waterborne diseases.

This article was written with France 24 journalist Claire Williams (clairewf24)

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