RATANGARH, India (AFP) - The death toll from a stampede among Hindu pilgrims in India rose to 109 on Monday as outrage mounted over safety at the festival which was also the scene of a similar tragedy seven years ago.
Rescue workers toiled through the night to recover the bodies from a bridge in the town of Ratangarh and from the water below where many people leapt to their death in a bid to avoid the crush.
“The latest information we have from the ground is that 109 people (were) killed and 133 injured,” Anand Mishra, an officer in the local police control room, told AFP in an updated bulletin on Sunday’s tragedy.
“We recovered the bodies from the river and from where they were crushed to the death,” said Mishra, speaking by phone from the nearby city of Datia in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
An AFP journalist at the site said the operation to recover the bodies had been finished and police investigators were now scouring the site.
The tragedy cast a long shadow over celebrations marking the end of one of the holiest festivals in the Hindu calendar.
Police said the panic had been sparked by rumours that the bridge was about to collapse.
Witnesses said the situation was then exacerbated by police wading into the crowds with baton sticks, a charge denied by police.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh led the condolences for the victims, which reports said included 31 women and 17 children.
“On this day of festivities, our hearts and prayers are with the victims and their families,” Singh said in a statement.
Up to 400,000 devotees were already inside or around the temple, which is about 350 kilometres north of the state capital Bhopal, when the stampede took place.
Large crowds began converging on the site from early morning, according to witnesses, on the penultimate day of the Navaratri festival.
The nine-day festival is dedicated to the worship of the Hindu goddess Durga, which draws millions of worshippers to temples, especially in northern and central India.
Monday marks the official end of the festival when devotees are expected to immerse idols in rivers as a final offering to the goddess.
The disaster in Datia comes only seven years after another stampede outside the same temple when more than 50 people were crushed to death while crossing the river, after which authorities built the bridge.
“Datia cops learnt no lessons from 2006 stampede", read a headline in The Hindustan Times, saying the tragedy “underlines the sheer ineptitude of the authorities responsible for the safety and security” of devotees.
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, a senior figure in the Bharatiya Janata Party, was facing calls to resign over the tragedy.
“Had there been adequate police, administration and health officials at the temple site, the loss of lives could have been averted,” said Kantilal Bhuria, the leader of the Congress party in the state.
Police and witnesses said at least 20,000 people were on the bridge over the River Sindh when the stampede broke out.
Manoj Sharma, one of the survivors, described a scene of utter mayhem.
“People were jumping off the bridge to save themselves, but they could not swim against the tide. I also saw children being tossed from the bridge, only to be washed away,” he told the Times of India.
“I saw a mother desperately trying to protect her baby amidst the swelling, rushing crowds. But both died before my eyes. It was most horrific incident of my life,” he said.Sharma said crowd control measures were totally inadequate.
“It was a huge administrative lapse on part of the state government. There were no policemen to control the crowds. Big vehicles carrying devotees were allowed to ply on the bridge and this caused the tragedy.” Uma Shankar Gupta, the state’s home minister, said authorities had not yet determined why the stampede had broken out, but downplayed suggestions that security to deal with the crowds was inadequate.
“There were safety measures in place, this is an annual event,” he told reporters.
“We don’t yet have information on how this happened, as our focus is on the rescue effort.” India has a long history of deadly stampedes at religious festivals, with at least 36 people trampled to death in February as pilgrims headed home from the Kumbh Mela religious festival on the banks of the river Ganges.
Some 102 Hindu devotees were killed in a stampede in January 2011 in the state of Kerala, while 224 pilgrims died in September 2008 as thousands of worshippers rushed to reach a 15th-century hill-top temple in Jodhpur.
Chief Minister Chouhan announced payouts of 150,000 rupees (S$3,000) to the families of those killed in the latest incident, and 50,000 rupees to the injured.