"I got as many relatives as I could out of the venue and into the bus, but one of my relatives called me to tell me that my uncle who was left behind has collapsed. We rushed him to the hospital," said Nilesh Pathak, whose uncle Kailash Dabhade (45) is recuperating from a stroke at the Navi Mumbai civic hospital.
The family – one of the thousands of staunch supporters of social activist and reformer Appasaheb Dharmadhikari – had come to Navi Mumbai from Lonavala on Sunday, 16 April, where Dharmadhikari was conferred with the 'Maharashtra Bhushan' award by Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
At least 11 people died of heatstroke on Sunday itself as 120 were hospitalised, with the death toll rising to 13 by Monday evening.
While an accidental death report (ADR) has been filed by the police in the matter, the deaths raised several questions on the choice of the venue, the schedule of the event, and the management be the organisers.
'A Stampede Had Begun': Attendees Narrate Ordeal
Pathak said that his family had come from Lonavala in one of the 12 buses arranged by the organisers.
Like Pathak, lakhs of people were waiting to hear Dharmadhikari's address.
"We didn't have anything to do with the political leaders who were attending the event. We only came there to listen to Appasaheb whose address was at the very end of the event. Most people were waiting to listen only to him," Pathak said.
"The heat was at its peak. There was ample amount of drinking water, but the facilities were a little far from where we were. After Appasaheb's speech was over they concluded the event. The crowd started moving out of the venue through small gates. People started tripping and falling eventually, and that stampede only escalated," Pathak explained.
Narendra Gaikwad (45) came from Murbad in Thane district to attend the event.
As the event concluded and stampede ensued, Gaikwad trip and fell and is now hospitalised with a seriously injured left leg.
Speaking to news agency PTI, a Raigad adminsitration official said that the water tankers had heated up by the time the event was over, due to which many could not drink sufficient water despite being thirsty and suffered dehydration. The official said that many did not drink water for hours as they "did not want to lose their occupied spots for a better view of the ceremony."
A press release from Navi Mumbai police said that women and children lay on roads out of thirst. As many women began to collapse, the police officers on duty also drove them on bikes through the crowd to the medical centres installed at the venue, the press release said.
The Scale of the Event and the Magnanimity of Dharmadhikari
As per the Raigad administration, 8-10 lakh people attended the event. While many started pouring in in the city since Saturday, the 306-acre venue was packed by 10:00 am on Sunday for the event that began at 1:00 pm.
Several parts of Navi Mumbai were decked up ahead of the event. The Corporate Park in Navi Mumbai's Kharghar expected a turnout of at least 15 lakh people, authorities had said ahead of the event.
As per a release by the state government a day before the event, the venue was equipped with 250 water tankers, 2,100 taps of drinking water, 4,200 portable toilets and 9,000 temporary toilets, 26 fire engines, and 69 ambulances. Over 800 volunteers were deployed at the event for management, it said.
An official had told PTI that 30 committees were formed to ensure proper management on ground.
The Central Railway even cancelled a mega block as Dharmadhikari's followers were expected to arrive in the city from at least 10 districts across the state.
Along with Shah, the event was also attended by Chief Minister Eknath Shinde, Deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis and Union minister Kapil Patil.
A Padma awardee, Dharmadhikari and his organisation Shree Sadasya's following in the state comes from his exemplary contribution to social work and upliftment of tribals that includes de-addiction work, medical camps, blood donation, and tree plantation work, among other contributions. His father, a renowned social reformer as well, was also conferred with the Maharashtra Bhushan award.
The Maharashtra Bhushan awards were started in 1995 by the then Shiv Sena-BJP alliance to honour contributions in the fields of social work, administration, literature, sports and science among others.
Death Toll Rises, So Does Politicking
At least 11 people, including eight women, died after suffering heatstroke, after at least 120 people complained of heat-related issues immediately after the event. While some were attended to by the doctors on the spot, over 40 others were hospitalised on Sunday.
The death toll rose to 13 by Monday evening.
While seven people died at the Tata Memorial Hospital, two succumbed at MGM Hospital, two at Bharti Vidyapeeth Medicare, and one at Navi Mumbai Civic Hospital.
Amid politicking and raising questions on the timing of the event, chief minister Eknath Shinde visited the hospitals on Friday to meet those admitted and announced that the state will bear their medical expenses. He also announced an ex gratia amount of Rs five lakh for the families of the deceased.
In a statement issued on Monday, Dharmadhikari said that he was pained by the deaths as if he had lost his family members. He also urged for the deaths to not be politicised.
Shah also tweeted to condole the deaths on the people at the event.
"The death of people who attended yesterday's Maharashtra Bhushan award function has deeply saddened me. I express my condolences to the families of the deceased. I pray for the recovery of those who are currently being treated," Shah tweeted.
While Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leaders Ajit Pawar and Supriya Sule, and Congress state chief Nana Patole have demanded a probe into the incident, Shiv Sena (UBT) MP Sanjay Raut and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray questioned why the event was not scheduled for the evening.
State minister and BJP leader, while addressing the media yesterday, said that the timing for the event was given by Dharmadhikari himself and the issues "should not be politicised."
(With inputs from PTI).