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Where Are The Crowds?
Usha Soni, one of just six passengers in one of the 70-seater coaches of the 00208 Bhopal-Ujjain Mela Special, is manifestly happy as the train departs from Bhopal. She isn’t even travelling to Ujjain for the mela, just to an intermediate station to visit her ailing father-in-law. “Someone told me it would be easy to get a seat on this train,” she says.
The 12-coach train, one of four such mela specials, operates daily between Bhopal and Ujjain, where the Mahakaal temple is locacted and the Simhastha Kumbh is now being held. But the passengers remain elusive. It’s more or less the same story with the 2,190 special trains brought in to cater to the “huge rush” of devotees. The rush is largely invisible and the railways is expected to run up losses.
Against the expected 10 million visitors, barely one million turned up on the first Shahi Snan. The chief secretary and the director general of police went into a huddle and instructions were issued to relax security restrictions in the temple town on the premise that the stifling police bandobast was keeping devotees away. The state BJP also instructed its district units to ensure a respectable attendance on the second Shahi Snan, scheduled for May 9. The fair, which began on April 22, will come to a close on May 21.
Chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, however, told Outlook that the impression that fewer people than before had turned up was created because a thousand more hectares had been added to the mela area. “The crowd has spread out and that’s why the place does not seem to be crowded,” the chief minister argued. A visit to the mela area however revealed huge but largely deserted pandals, erected on land acquired from farmers. The agricultural land is teeming with snakes and so far 134 snakes have been caught from the mela area by snake-catchers commissioned by the government.
For the past three years, the state government has in fact been busy making preparations to host 50 million visitors to the Mela. Upwards of Rs 3,000 crore is learnt to have been spent for the purpose, some Rs 363 crore of it on just roads in Ujjain. Five railway overbridges and two flyovers, new ghats, water filtration plants—all these have also been created for the mela. The city too has been spruced up and given a massive facelift. The chief minister personally monitored the preparations, and a cabinet minister was put in overall charge of mela affairs and asked to stay put in Ujjain for the entire duration of the event. Dozens of IAS officers and state-service bureaucrats have been pressed into service and thousands of government employees, including policemen, have been deployed to ensure all goes well.
The state government is learnt to have taken care of every little detail, including arranging supply of 97,000 quintals of marigold flowers. A team of 18 government veterinarians, with 148 support staff, has been deployed for regular medical examination of the horses, camels and elephants that have been brought by the various akhadas of sadhus to the fair.
The chief minister visited Delhi to invite Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the Simhastha Mela and hosted a banquet for foreign envoys in the national capital. The high commissioner of neighbour Pakistan, however, was not invited. Indian missions abroad were also directed to publicise the event.
The publicity blitz, including huge hoardings, radio jingles, TV spots, advertisements, films and social media, seems to have had little impact. In fact, visitors are complaining of filthy and smelly lavatories and heaps of garbage lying around. Amusingly, the sadhus camping at the site are bitter about poor internet connectivity and frequent call-drops.
The massive, hi-tech media centre in the mela area is being put to little use and the hotels and guesthouses in this divisional headquarter town, which had jacked up their tariff hoping for a windfall, are now offering heavy discounts.
All this would have admittedly mattered little to the government had it not turned itself into the organiser-in-chief of the event. One can presume with some degree of certainty that when Chouhan, along with his wife, visited Ujjain on April 26 and had a darshan of Mahakaal, queuing up with ordinary devotees, he must have beseeched the Lord to persuade more people to visit Ujjain. For, it is his—not Mahakaal’s—prestige that is at stake.
By K.S. Shaini in Ujjain