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Saving Lives At Kumbh: A 14-Year-Old’s Invention That Can Prevent Stampedes

Nilay Kulkarni's system, Ashioto, uses pressure-sensitive mats that count footfall to provide real-time data about inflow and outflow of people.

For most Indians, three things come to mind when they think of the Kumbh Mela,— religion, crowds and stampedes. Lakhs of devotees arrive in various cities – Nashik, Allahabad, Ujjain & Haridwar – to be a part of the Kumbh Mela. And each time, dozens lose their lives due to stampedes.

The stampede at the 1954 Kumbh Mela at Allahabad, that killed at least 500 people, is still remembered as a national tragedy. Independent estimates place the number of people killed close to 800.

Over the years, even though governments implemented a number of measures to prevent stampedes, the problem continued. In the year 2003, at the Allahabad Kumbh, the Uttar Pradesh government deployed 83 ambulances, 250 doctors, around 18,000 police officers, 200 police boats and 18 temporary bridges. Tragically, at least 36 people still lost their lives that year in a single stampede.

Come 2015, and 14-year-old Nilay Kulkarni would change this.

At the age of 13, Kulkarni got a chance to be a part of Kumbathon 2014, an event organised by MIT Media Lab. There, Kulkarni found a team interested in solving the problem of crowd flow and ensuring safety at the Kumbh Mela.

Nilay Kulkarni Ashioto
13-year-old Nilay Kulkarni at MIT Media Lab’s Kumbathon 2014

Kulkarni tells NewsCentral24x7, “We brainstormed and conceptualised this project where there would be a physical sensor which would count the number of people stepping on this sensor.” Kulkarni explains, “When they walk over this physical sensor, the real-time count would be transmitted to our database and then we could show the entire city’s statistics in one single dashboard on a webpage to the police. From there, the police can take decisions to prevent stampedes.”

The Challenges

Developing a mat to solve the stampede problem wasn’t just a pop-up idea for Kulkarni and his team. First came the idea of installing a camera, which failed. After this, the team conceptualised distributing tokens to the pilgrims but that had to be discarded as well. The idea of counting the number of mobile phones via tower data did not work either.

“We kept eliminating these options. We needed something portable since security plans at the Mela change every day. Then someone from our team said, ‘Hey, can we count footsteps?’ And then, we arrived at this conclusion that what we need is something that is physical and should be able to tell the exact number of people at the exact location. It needs to be limited, focused and precise,” Kulkarni recounts.

Aluminium foil and cardboard might be the play-things of an ordinary 14-year-old, but for Kulkarni, they were the building blocks of a life-saving technology – Ashioto.

He explains, “We gradually built a prototype, putting together aluminium foil and cardboard — a pressure-sensitive mat that could count footfalls. This was the perfect technology.”

You’re Just A Kid”

However, the idea of using a mat did not appeal to the mentors of Kulkarni’s team. “We faced some harsh criticism from our mentors that ‘this is not going to work..just use something else’. A lot of times we were told just figure out a way to make things work with camera but don’t go with the mat.

Most people we tried to speak to, including the relevant authorities, shrugged us off. Here I was, a 14-year-old leading a team, trying to persuade countless ‘adults’ that I had solved the problem they had not been able to solve.”

These attitudes caused Kulkarni a lot of pain, but throughout this, he kept reminding himself that he was out to save lives. He says he had read enough novels to know any task with this objective was not going to easy.

The Turnaround

Kulkarni and his team conducted several pilots at temples and malls — places where a huge number of people visited — to assess the effectiveness of the mat.

The success of the pilots engineered a shift in people’s attitude towards Kulkarni and his team. Once the invention started showing results, it became easier,” he recounts. 

“Three weeks before the Mela (the 2015 Nashik Kumbh), we didn’t have the permissions. We just went up to the Police Commissioner and insisted that he at least let us demonstrate our prototype. He said yes, saw the demonstration and liked it. One day, just like that, it was suddenly real.

Kulkarni and his team demonstrating the mat at the 2015 Nashik Kumbh.

The mats were installed on five of the 20 exit routes and the mechanism counted more than five lakh people in 18 hours. It helped the police take crowd-routing decisions in real time. “It was the first time that we had zero stampedes in any Kumbh Mela. It was overwhelming to have helped the police,” Kulkarni says.

In his Ted Talk delivered earlier this year, Kulkarni explains that the adaptability of Ashioto’s design allows it to be implemented anywhere in the world.

He also says that the code for Ashioto will be made freely available, for anyone to use and to develop on.

“My new dream is to improve, adapt and deploy this system all over the world to prevent loss of life and ensure a safe flow of people because every human soul is precious,” says an 18-year-old Kulkarni in his speech, and asks the audience if they believe in his dream.

They respond, “Yes!”

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