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Hindu devotees take dips at Sangam, the confluence of the Yamuna and the Ganges rivers, on Mauni Amavsya, the most auspicious day of Kumbh Mela. Photograph: AP

Kumbh Mela: cleaning up after the world’s largest human gathering

Around 220 million people descended on sleepy Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad) for the 50-day Hindu festival. The cleanup could take months

WT24 Desk

As the sun sets over the Ganges, Vikas Kumar drives his garbage truck through the streets of Prayagraj, a historic Indian city of 1.1 million that was until last year known as Allahabad. “All this stuff people have been eating, drinking and throwing away,” he says, gesturing at piles of food waste, discarded water bottles and mud-spattered flowers. “It will take three or four months to clear”, according to The Guardian.

Over a 50-day period this normally sleepy city has been visited by around 220 million people for the Kumbh Mela – a 50-day Hindu pilgrimage dubbed the world’s largest human gathering.

As Kumar and his team collect garbage, scores of workers are dismantling the vast “pop-up city” they helped build – a temporary megalopolis two-thirds the size of Manhattan, containing more than 4,000 tents erected to house pilgrims, organisers, cultural programmes and shrines.

The temporary infrastructure organisers needed to lay down ahead of time was extensive: 185 miles of temporary metal roads, nearly two dozen pontoon bridges, 120,000 toilets and more than 100 police stations or posts.

Contracts were awarded to private companies to erect different sections of the pop-up tent city, and it was built and is being dismantled by labourers from far beyond Prayagraj.

One worker at a communal tent that housed 250 people a night says, as he and his co-workers pack up and reload their trucks, that they came from Mumbai – a roughly 860 mile (1,400km) journey – to set up and run the facility. They will take back everything they brought with them – including beds, chairs, electrical wiring and steel frames to hold up the tents.

Crowd control

As the Kumbh Mela’s temporary infrastructure pours out of Prayagraj, what happens to all the people? This year, more than 10 million participated in the final day of the festival alone. With such a massive crowd, disaster is always a threat, as when 36 people died in a stampede at the city’s main railway station on one of the busiest days of the 2013 event.

Many people came from villages across India, often making 10- or 12-hour journeys by train, road or on foot for a few minutes bathing at Sangam, the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganges rivers, where the water is believed to cleanse sins and release bathers from the cycle of rebirth.

As those pilgrims remaining in the city embark on their return trips, there is a feeling of anarchy in the streets. People pile on to the backs of trucks, filling them to the brim and spilling out over their edges. Others roam lost in the city, trying to locate the train station or find their cars.

Many would see this chaos as ordinary for a mega-event in India, and officials speak proudly of their performance. “This time we made the entrances and exits totally separate,” says Inspector Rajinder Kumar, who oversaw more than 3,000 police officers at the railway station on the festival’s final day. “That criss-cross movement was stopped and unauthorised entrances were blocked.”

Sanitation and the cleanliness of the city’s rivers was another key focus. In 2013 pollution levels in Sangam increased significantly after just the first day of the event, when 8 million people took holy dips. This year, extra water from barrages and dams upstream was released into the Ganges ahead of the start of the pilgrimage, to ensure a constant flow and avoid the stagnation that could lead to disease. Organisers say the efforts to keep the rivers clean are ongoing through the cleanup.

Dilip Trigunayak, one of the most senior officials at this year’s Kumbh, says that, as of mid-March, pollution levels in the water have remained within state Pollution Control Board limits.

Many locals say they have never before seen the water this clean. “It’s absolutely, unbelievably clean,” says Anil Agarwal, a lifelong resident of Prayagraj who ran a tent-city facility for pilgrims during the event. “If Sangam was dirty, all the filth would have come and collected at the shore. There’s been a big shift.”

For the prime minister, Narendra Modi, whose Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) was heavily involved in the Kumbh Mela, such reviews are helpful with a general election just weeks away. Modi and the BJP are supported by many of the Kumbh pilgrims, who see him as a strong leader who gets things done. A clean and well-run festival fits nicely into that narrative.

Critics, though, say that given much of the temporary city was erected on a part of Prayagraj’s riverbed, which is currently dry, the remaining rubbish could be washed into the river if it is not cleared before the tide changes this summer.

“It’s very ephemeral,” says the environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman. “An intervention made to ease things for a little while. We’re used to substandard being normal, so when things improve marginally, by cleaning up water in one particular stretch, we are quite happy with that. It’s like cleaning up the beach before the governor visits.”

There are other signs that for all the talk of a “clean Kumbh”, the societal mindset changes required to achieve the government’s broader nationwide sanitation campaign are still far from complete.

Workers hired to clean toilets complain of the filth left behind and say some pilgrims steal their equipment. “They drove us crazy. We used to tie our hoses up but people would just open them and steal them,” says a toilet cleaner named Rahul.

Just down the street, Kumar, the garbage truck driver, empties a packet of chewing tobacco into his mouth and tosses the wrapper on the ground. Old habits clearly die hard, even for those leading the cleanup effort.

“You’re right, I shouldn’t have done that,” he says when challenged. “But we’ll pick it up later.”

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