Can India’s Kumbh Mela–a religious pilgrimage that at its peak is expected to attract around 30 million people to the western city of Nashik this year–provide ideas for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who plans to build 100 smart cities in the country?
Technology experts from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and their associates think it can.
The monthslong Kumbh Mela is a Hindu festival that takes place once every three years rotating around four cities—Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain. In July, the western Indian city of Nashik, usually known for its vineyards and little else, took its turn, transforming itself into a metropolis with increased temporary housing, healthcare and policing as its population surges during the pilgrimage.
The peak of the current festival, scheduled to last just over a year, is expected to be in August and September, when devotees will take a dip in the Godavari River on four different auspicious days. About eight million pilgrims are expected to participate in each of those days. Hindus believe doing so will wash away their sins and rid them of the cycle of death and rebirth.
MIT researchers for their part believe the festival presents an opportunity for entrepreneurs to devise technological solutions to the challenge of building large cities in a short time that can be tested, firmed up and then replicated across India.
To provide those solutions, they are holding ‘Kumbhathons’—weeklong innovation camps attended by citizens, governments and corporates.
Sandip Shinde, co-founder of the Kumbha Foundation, a non-profit that has organized five Kumbhathon events in the past 18 months in association with MIT, says the project aims to develop solutions that can be rolled out to other Indian cities.
“The main objective and goal for everybody including MIT Media Lab and people working around is actually creating impact on the citizens and bring innovation culture in city like Nashik so that it can be replicated in any other city in India,” said Mr. Shinde, who is on a sabbatical for a year from his job at Tata Consultancy Services, one of India’s biggest outsourcers, in Pune to volunteer at Kumbh Mela.
“It’s about helping the smart citizens make their cities smart,” said John Werner, head of innovations and new ventures for Camera Culture Group at MIT Media Lab that has been spearheading the Kumbhathon. “The fact that people have these mobile devices and these tools that they can use; we can change the future of cities.”
The idea for the innovation camps emerged about two years back when two Nashik natives, Sunil Khandbahale, developer of Khandbahale, a multilingual online dictionary, and Ramesh Raskar, associate professor at MIT Media Lab, met. “We were looking for right opportunity to sensitize [a] community for innovation and Kumbh Mela event was just the perfect match to experiment looking at its scale and diversified challenges like housing, transportation, sanitation, health, policing, security, communication, food, safety, crowd steering etc.,” Mr. Khandbahale said in an emailed response to questions.
“Indians have a familiar ability to adapt to varying circumstances in seeming chaos but we know that there is a method to their madness,” Mr. Raskar at MIT said. “Kumbhathon aims to concentrate this spirit of innovation.”
The first Kumbhathon event was held in January 2014 in Nashik. Students from engineering and medical colleges in the city were invited to join in and more than 1,050 potential problems that arise at the Kumbh Mela were crowd sourced from students and citizens. Eventually, the innovators chose 12 problems to focus on, including housing, transportation and sanitation, and developed prototypes of their solutions.
Some of those ideas have already emerged as mobile apps and projects.
An official Kumbh Mela smartphone app gives pilgrims information about the routes they should take for bathing in the holy Godavari River, the center of Kumbh Mela, as well as live traffic information, availability of hotel rooms and hospital beds and the location of stores and banks.
An epidemic tracker app gives doctors and authorities information for tracing any likely spread of disease during the pilgrimage by capturing location, gender, age group, symptoms about the patients. The MediTracker app gives information about ambulances and hospitals in the vicinity.
Meanwhile, the Kumbhathon’s crowd-steering project helps authorities determine how many people have congregated at a particular location using signals collected from mobile phone towers. “It is of immense help in crowd management,” said Praveen Gedam, commissioner of Nashik Municipal Corporation. “Based on the analytics of data we are receiving from nearest mobile towers we can predict the movement of crowd—how it is moving from one part of city to other part of city.”
The pop-up housing project helps conveniently house thousands of sadhus, or Hindu holy men, who congregate during the festival.
The next Kumbhathon event is scheduled for January and the Kumbha Foundation and MIT Media Lab are in the process of registering the Nashik Innovation Center, a non-profit company, to provide common space to the innovators and experts “to help progress innovations and build entrepreneurial skills,” according to Mr. Werner at MIT Media Lab.
“Originally, it was like how we scale up to pop-up cities like Kumbh Mela,” said Mr. Werner. “Now we are thinking this not just of Kumbh Mela and pop-up cities but help non-metro cities reach their potential.”