MIT innovations at Kumbh Mela

With 30 million expected at this year’s Hindu pilgrimage in Nashik, researchers are seizing the opportunity to learn about huge-scale urban planning problems.

nashik 1989
The Guardian reports on efforts from the Tata Center-affiliated Camera Culture group to inspire mass innovation at one of the world’s largest human gatherings.

The Kumbh Mela festival, a tri-annual Hindu mass pilgrimage, “is a catharsis, where one can purge oneself of sin by taking a dip in the holy water of the sacred rivers,” writes Purvi Thacker in The Guardian.

This August the festival returns to Nashik, Maharashtra after a 12-year absence. For 20 days this city of 1.5 million people will swell to more than 30 million as pilgrims and tourists arrive to bathe in the Godavari River. The logistical problems presented by this sudden and massive influx of humanity are myriad, and had tragic results in 2003, the last time Nashik hosted, when at least 39 people were killed in a stampede.

For MIT Media Lab and Tata Center professor Ramesh Raskar, a native of Nashik, the Kumbh Mela represents both an enormous challenge and a wellspring of opportunity. Raskar is the driving force behind Kumbhthon, a series of innovation workshops and camps trying to develop solutions (both high- and low-tech) for managing “challenges in the areas of access to healthcare, transportation, food and sanitation, housing and crowd control.”

“The project is at the vanguard of tradition and technology,” he says in the Guardian article. “It’s about tapping into smart citizens to make smart cities. Citizens watch more TV, carry smartphones and are highly mobile and connected. Their participation is crucial.”

Raskar and his team are providing mentorship, logistics, and technical support to more than 100 innovators working on carefully curated projects. These include an app to help authorities monitor and re-direct crowd flow, an online platform to “dynamically gather and analyse data on taxis, train and bus schedules, free rooms in hostels, and the availability of hospital beds,” and “an Uber-like logistical network that connects festival-goers with quality and hygienic food suppliers.” They even mobilized Nashik residents to improve the city’s Wikipedia page, so that travelers could access up-to-date information.

The researchers recognize that technology is just one aspect of a the complex social, geographical, and religious ecosystem of the Kumbh Mela, but they’re hoping that some of these solutions will prove effective and be adapted for use in other cities around the world.

Full story in The Guardian

Photo: The 1989 Kumbh Mela in Nashik. (Public domain)