ALLAHABAD, INDIA, February 2, 2013 (India Real Time): The Kumbh Mela is frequently billed as the world's largest religious gathering. It is almost certainly true. But how can we know for sure? The two men with the challenge of counting up to an estimated 80 million people are divided on how to do it. They also come up with different numbers. They are Devesh Chaturvedi, the commissioner of Allahabad, and Alok Sharma, the inspector general of police in the city, which is hosting the Hindu festival.
The Commissioner reckons the number of pilgrims passing through the Kumbh Mela site on the banks of the Ganga between Jan. 14 and March 10 will end up somewhere between 60 to 80 million. Both men use different techniques for counting but agree neither method is scientific or water tight. Mr. Sharma is more conservative and estimates the final total will be around 40 to 60 million.
"We use thumb rules," says Mr. Sharma. His team positions counters at the entry points to the Mela area, which leads to the bathing ghats (banks). They calculate the maximum crowd capacity of 100 meters of road based on the assumption that each pilgrim will take up 1.5 square feet of ground. Then they measure the speed of the crowd by timing how long it takes a police officer to move 600 meters with the throng. "The pace of crowd keeps changing depending on the density," the Inspector General adds. Once they know how long it has taken the policeman to walk 600 meters they can work out how big a crowd has covered the same distance and how many people have passed. Vehicles arriving along the entry roads around Allahabad are counted manually and trains with up to 8,000 passengers each are also added to the total.
Mr. Chaturvedi has a different approach to the enormous population count. From a series of watch towers across the 14 sectors of the Mela site head-counters try to keep a tab on the number of pilgrims below. "It's not the most scientific way of doing it," Mr Chaturvedi says. "But that is the only estimate available to us." This year for the first time the Mela is also being tracked using satellite imagery. "Based on the color of the images they are going to tell what is the density of human beings," Mr. Chaturvedi says. Using calculations based on the average stay of pilgrims and photographs taken at different times of day, the Commissioner hopes it will provide a more accurate count.
Mr. Chaturvedi says that the biggest crowd so far, on the first day of the festival, was 8 million while Mr. Sharma puts it at between 1.5 million and 1.8 million.