Technology’s New Rules
Three days before the Ides of March 1988, Kathmandu experienced the most shocking mass deaths since the earthquake of 1934. Scores of football fans lost their lives and many more were injured in a stampede as a hailstorm lashed the Dasrath Ranghasala for 15 minutes.
The hailstorm was not the first in Kathmandu, and others before it have never managed to kill as many people in one fell swoop. What has changed for hailstorms that allow them to be so hazardous to public health? Of course, there have been no drastic changes in weather patterns. What is happening is that our society is adopting the trappings of “modernity” without fully understanding the process. The relationship between technological needs and traditional management is still distant.
We have yet to appreciate fully that emergency exits in cinema halls must be kept unlatched, that airplanes have load limits, and that mass exodus is the first thing to anticipate in managing a sports stadium.
The design of Dasarath Rangasala shows an adequate number of large and small exits. However, only the “back-doors” are allowed for use by the ordinary spectator. In normal times they are choking enough; in extraordinary situations they become a deadly bottleneck. The authorities failed to draw lessons from a similar stampede a few years ago, one that luckily did not claim lives. They continued the quixotic practice of keeping the doors locked for the duration of a game and the prize-distribution and speech-making that follows. Those who want to leave a boring game, or a hailstorm, are trapped.
If there is a message in the Ranghasala disaster, it is that there are similar tragedies waiting to happen wherever modern technology and traditional management are mismatched. One only has to look at buses on the rajpath piled high with humanity; the villager who uses pesticide to kill fish in the stream; or the airstrip manager who slips an extra sack of supplies into the baggage hold of a Pilatus Porter.
Nepal is moving from a “rural-diffuse” society into an “urban-concentrated” one, where technology is used to pack people more densely, even while catering to their needs. In urban living, the laws of technology that allow so many people to live so close together must be respected. Stadia, like systems of mass transit or mass production, have their own requirements for functioning smoothly. These mega machines demand that extreme events like sudden power failures or fires or earthquakes be accounted for not only in design but in operation. Engineers and managers knowledgeable about such things must be entrusted with power and responsibility to act in emergencies. A cavalier attitude could only lead to further tragedies.