Mapping the Kumbh Mela

Interdisciplinary faculty and student research on a “Pop-up Mega City”

Draft comments about learning – Wall Street Journal

with one comment

(I drafted these comments in response to a query from Wall St. Journal Asia – John)

Q: I’m writing about the Kumbh Mela for the Wall Street Journal and I wondered if I could ask you about your visit there? I read your interesting article in Forbes Magazine about your experience and was very taken by your description of the Mela as a pop-up megacity.
Q: Are there other examples of pop-up megacities in the world? If so how does this compare?
Q: I was also really interested in your comments that future cities will have to learn from the Kumbh Mela. Please could you elaborate on why?
Q: What do you think India can learn from the organization of the Kumbh?


Here are some thoughts with respect to Kumbh Mela. I’ve tried to respond to your questions. Please feel free to write with followups or clarifications. This is long…I’m sorry that I could not answer the questions in a quick sound bite or two!

(Also here is another WSJ piece relating my work in finance and infrastructure to the positive influence on aspects of Indian cities, in this case slums):

Q: Are there other examples of pop-up megacities in the world? If so how does this compare?

A: There are other megacities (of tens of millions), but they took years to emerge. There are many other agglomerations which arise quickly – and often informally. One example is refugee camps. Another example is informal housing around existing cities. Their populations can also be in the millions. But those don’t compare to the Kumbh Mela for three main reasons. The first is the cyclical and temporary nature of Kumbh Mela. While there are other Melas on this and other sites, the Maha Kumbh Mela is each 12 years. A lot changes in the world in 12 years. Between the major installations of Kumbh Mela, the entire site is underwater and destroyed; then rebuilt.

Second, the objective of this city is pilgrimage and devotion. That leads to a commonality of purpose between all involved that does not exist very often. Finally, the Kumbh Mela is clearly organized around the delivery of a good event from the point of view of the admistration and of the Akharas. They agree on what seems to be a singular measure of success: the ability of pilgrims and holy people to come to Allahabad, to learn and exchange information, to bathe in the appropriate way, and to safely return home. So the 12 year timing, the temporary nature, the commonality of purpose, and the consensus about the definition of success are all without compare.

Q: I was also really interested in your comments that future cities will have to learn from the Kumbh Mela. Please could you elaborate on why?

The learning needs to be approached from points of view and from choices around focus. There is no such thing as a city that learns…there are just institutions and individuals who learn. By looking from the point of view of the administrators, of the Akharas and other organizations, of the private sector actors who respond to the needs of the Mela, and the point of view of the holy men and the pilgrims one can see how a) the Akharas have land needs and a hierarchy of location and adjacency as well as a desire to conduct their independent operations which b) the organizers honor and respect and seek to accommodate using c) tools of urban planning and infrastructure that cause or incent the non-government actors and private sector vendors to act a certain way and provide specific contributions which d) means that pilgrims can travel to Allahabad, cross stable pontoon bridges, find food and spiritual nourishment, make their way to and from the Sangam, and make their way home.

Second, there are frameworks in considering how all of these entities interact. One framework is to think of starting condition, resources available, and where to focus. For the administrators of Kumbh Mela this means beginning with a blank slate (or 32 km sq of sand) and emphasizing just three main tools: land allocation, road layout, and electricity. The balance is taken care of by others. The learning is in aligning the points of view, considering the starting point and the objective, and deciding where to intervene. Learning from Kumbh Mela is most accessible and most extensible within that framework.

Q: What do you think India can learn from the organization of the Kumbh?

The staging of the Kumbh Mela is a great success of administrative skill and religious history. The city and state and Akharas should be proud. I observed four major factors in the success of the Kumbh Mela that are worth considering. First, all involved seem aligned around the common goal of having the Mela be a good experience for the holy men and for the pilgrims. There are not competing interests around, say, GDP growth or smog or some high-rise real estate deal or where to put an airport. Second, the administration has significant authority over what happens in the valley. There are not overlapping agencies, pre-existing interest groups, or even voter blocks. Third, the entire thing starts from a blank slate on the ground. That is analogous to the new Tier II and Tier III cities being built from nothing in the nation. And fourth, the organizers really seemed to focus on just two aspects of infrastructure: roads and electricity. If the land is allocated, the roads are available, and electricity is at hand, the non-government actors will figure out the rest. These four characteristics are worth considering since they individually and collectively lead to the success of the Maha Kumbh Mela.



Written by jdmacomber

February 1, 2013 at 3:15 am

One Response

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  1. How do you feel about the growing influence of other eastern Asian economies which are developing at an incredible rate? ASEAN +3 is just one example of how countries such as Vietnam and South Korea are going to be strong global competitors. It’s projected that Japan, who’s economy now seems fragile and unadapted to global change, will be replaced by manufactures in big emerging markets such as Kumbh Mela.
    India relies heavily on coal, more so than the United States. India’s coal use makes our largest coal plants look microscopic. As India grows, will they begin to take energy and green efficient steps to improving the global environment?
    Another concern I have with India is in regards to their educated citizens especially in Information Technology and Engineering. With so many Indians being educated and competing in -arguably- the two fastest growing work forces, will the United States be able to compete against their numbers?

    Roxi Poole

    February 11, 2013 at 4:13 am

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