What is 150 million people? About half the size of the United States of America. What is a 120 million people? Well, that’s about the size of Japan, give or take a few.

What are we talking about these numbers? Well, because 150 million is approximately the number of people expected to participate in the Hindu festival of Kumbh Mela – the world’s largest festival – in 2019, and 120 million is the number of people that turned up in 2013.

This is widely understood to be the world’s largest peaceful gathering of people.

Curiously, even though the Kumbh Mela has been going on from time immemorial, there have been only sporadic efforts to understand what such a statistics-defying event does to local economics in the region where it is held.

But it might be time to understand the Kumbh Mela for what it really is – a tremendous boost to local economies in parts of India which are most cash-and-job-strapped (north and central). It is also a major leg up to travel industries as many people travel from great distances to arrive at the Kumbh.

How much does every person who visits the Kumbh Mela spend approximately? We do not know. But we do know that the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), the apex trade body, expects the 2019 Kumbh Mela to generate business worth ₹1,20,000 crores. While the government expenditure on the festival is ₹4,200 crore.

Even if we consider that these numbers may not be absolute, this is, by any stretch of the imagination, an astounding return on investment. Suffice to say that there have barely been businesses which provide this kind of margins.

The CII also says that the festival will create 600,000 jobs. In hospitality alone 250,000 people will receive work through the festival and hundreds of thousands more in tour operations and airlines, local transport and logistics, as formal and informal guides, and in emergency and ancillary support systems. Around 85,000 jobs will come from medical tourism and eco-tourism related to the festival alone.

But this is not new. In 2013, when the Kumbh Mela was last held, it created an estimated 100,000 jobs directly in the arrangements of the festival and an equal amount in the wider economy. Local authorities estimated that the impact of the Kumbh Mela is about 15 to 20 times the amount of money spent organising it.

Has there been any researched study on the economic impact of the Kumbh Mela? In fact, yes. In 2013, two researchers, Sanatan Srivastava and Ajeet Kumar Rai, from the School of Management Studies, Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology and the Sam Higginbottom Institute of Agriculture, Technology and Sciences, both in Allahabad, wrote a detailed paper on this called – Socio-Economic Dimensions of the Kumbh Mela 2013 and the Organisational Aspect of It: A Study, and published it in 2014 in the International Journal of Management in May 2014.

They noted that in 2013, the local administration had raked in $2.2 billion on an investment of around $220 million. They also noted that around a million foreign tourists had come to the festival.

All of this adds up to one compelling argument – the urgent need to revisit the way the Kumbh Mela is perceived in the public sphere. Remember that, for instance, a Kumbh Mela in a state like Uttar Pradesh which is impoverished and has around 200 million, is invaluable. Remember Uttar Pradesh is one of those places in India where millions with advanced degrees apply for a few thousand clerical jobs.

The work and money the Kumbh Mela generates, therefore, is of immeasurable value – it ought to be considered a means of transferring money to those who need it the most, both from the government and from private industry.

In fact, I would argue that since this festival has a unique record of being one of the, if not the largest peaceful gathering of people in the world, it delivers a troika of benefits. It creates jobs, transfers money to those who need it the most, and provides an engaging and uplifting socio-cultural activity that keeps the peace.

I felt the power of this festival when I first went to it in 2001 and now, nearly two decades later, I am more convinced than ever that the Kumbh Mela ought to be positioned as a great force for good in locations where we need such good the most.

That we have perhaps failed to perceive and position it as such is a fundamental mistake.

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