Kumbh Mela and Urban Economics

Mint alerted me to this super development. Harvard University’s four centres are interested in Kumbh mela being oprganised in Allahabad:

Behind the massive show of religious devotion is a quiet secular machine that services the millions who pour into Allahabad for the Kumbh Melas. The details are mind boggling. The crowd on the main days is large enough to be visible from space satellites. Some 25,000 tonnes of foodgrains are sent to feed the pilgrims. About 700,000 tents are erected to house the visitors. Pipes have to be laid so that clean drinking water is available. A temporary super-specialty hospital has been built for anybody who falls seriously sick. Thirty-one police stations and 41 police check-posts have come up to maintain law and order. Massive television screens flash information about missing people. Thirty-six fire stations will get into the act in case there is a conflagration.

The entire effort is so unique that it has attracted the attention of Harvard University. Six of its departments are collaborating to understand the Kumbh Mela phenomenon: the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard Divinity School, Harvard Graduate School of Design, Harvard Business School, Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health.
The South Asia Institute at Harvard notes on its website: “A temporary city is created every 12 years in Allahabad to house the Kumbh Mela’s many pilgrims. This city is laid out on a grid, constructed and deconstructed within a matter of weeks; within the grid, multiple aspects of contemporary urbanism come to fruition, including spatial zoning, an electricity grid, food and water distribution, physical infrastructure construction, mass vaccinations, public gathering spaces, and night-time social events.
The megacity that magically pops up at Allahabad during the Kumbh Mela is as large as New York, London and Paris combined. The sheer scale of the effort shows that the Indian state machinery, usually a creaking mess, can be galvanized into action when there is the will to do something. The lack of state capacity is one of the weak links in the Indian development effort, and the recent New Delhi rape highlighted its inability to even adequately perform its basic duty of protecting citizens.
More details on what each of the four would do is  here:

The obvious candidates for a project of this nature are the students and faculties from Harvard’s school of public health. They’ll be there in force, studying health clinic readiness, sanitation and water-borne illnesses.

But next to them will be researchers from Harvard’s school of urban design and the business school. One faculty member from Harvard Business School is interested in using the festival to develop one of the school’s famous case studies. They’ll dissect many of the critical questions that the Kumbh organizers have to make in order to keep the event safe, secure and egalitarian. Others will look at the question of how prices within the many Kumbh markets get determined.

For example, since the Kumbh Mela takes place only every 12 years, 2013 marks the first Kumbh which will be criss-crossed with cell phone towers and where a critical mass of people will be using mobile phones. That environment creates a unique opportunity for researchers interested in studying “big data.” They’ll be looking into questions like how anonymized cell phone data can assist in infectious disease mapping.

These questions overlap those being asked by Harvard’s school of urban design, whose researchers will focus more on “the metabolism” of the Kumbh. How are goods being transported? How are they transporting clean drinking water, how are public toilets and cooking areas designed and kept at a distance from one another? On the outside, the overlap between urban design and global health appears painfully obvious, yet research collaborations of this nature are all too rare.

The idea is to take these lessons to other areas:
The hope is that by studying a pop-up mega-city, researchers would learn lessons applicable to a wide range of mass gathering events, from refugee camps to music festivals like Burning Man. How do people move en masse? How can the spread of disease be kept in check using minimal technology? The questions aren’t new, but by bringing four major disciplines under one tent—literally—Harvard is creating a new strain of dialogue, one which just might be able to keep up with the crush of the crowd.
HSPH Blog on the event is here. SoutH Asian Institute Blog is here
For Mint, this provides hope:
What happens in Allahabad during the Kumbh Mela is thus a ray of hope because it demonstrates that a massive city can be built, managed and dismantled in a few weeks. If only such administrative excellence were allowed in our permanent cities.
However, another lesson is for our education system as well. Universities/Instructors abroad are teaching us Yoga, Sanskrit, Gandhi Philosophy etc etc. Now we will get to know about Maha Kumbh from them as well…

One Response to “Kumbh Mela and Urban Economics”

  1. Harvard Research team in India to study Maha Kumbh 2013; Gather, analyze “Big Data” from the largest human gathering Says:

    […] Kumbh Mela and Urban Economics […]

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