Video: Harvard Business School at the Kumbh Mela

In this video report, Senior Lecturer John Macomber visits the Kumbh Mela in India to discover what such an undertaking can teach us about real estate, urbanization, sustainability, and infrastructure.
by Jim Aisner

Every 12 years Hindu pilgrims gather at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in northern India to bathe in the sacred waters. The gathering, known as the Kumbh Mela, is the world's largest religious festival, drawing millions of people over 55 days, and culminating this year with the Shivaratri Snan bathing day on March 10. To accommodate everyone, the Indian government creates a temporary city-building roads and providing power on what is normally an empty flood plain. Senior Lecturer and Dauten Real Estate Fellow John Macomber, a member of the School's Finance Unit, visited the Kumbh in January to discover what such an undertaking can teach us about real estate, urbanization, sustainability, and infrastructure.

In addition to the video and Q&A below, Macomber has written a first-person account about his journey for Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, Why a Harvard Finance Instructor Went to the Kumbh Mela.

Video Embed

Jim Aisner: What are the most important lessons you learned from your trip to India?

John Macomber: I learned things on a personal level as well as lessons relevant to my interests in finance and planning in the field of urban development. From a personal point of view, it was remarkable to see tens of millions of people from all walks of life, rich and poor, gather together in what was literally a pop-up city and go about their daily and religious lives, inhabiting tents of one kind or another, traveling on specially constructed roads, using the electrical power and illumination generated from 22,000 temporary light poles, and making their religious commitments as they bathed in the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers over the course of the day, many beginning in the darkness before dawn.

From a research point of view, I learned quite a bit in the context of my work looking at new cities all over the world. I'm interested in rapid urbanization. At the Kumbh Mela, you have the clearest example I know of the creation of a huge and totally new city from scratch. This land, after all, was under water six months ago—the entire four-by-eight-kilometer area—and it's going to be under water again in six months, since it's in the flood plain of the two rivers.

Cities consist of many components—people, buildings, roads, schools, bridges, water, power plants, transit, security, health care—and I was interested to see what would be the focus of administrative attention during the festival. Tens of millions of people all around the world are moving into cities from the countryside looking for opportunities, but in doing so they encounter a scarcity of resources—not enough clean air or fresh water, not enough places to put the garbage, for instance. All these considerations resonate in India, where it's estimated that some 400 million people are moving into urban areas. They all can't go to Mumbai and Calcutta. They will have to go to new cities. Might there be best practices to extend from this new city?

And then there's the role of government in the urbanization process. There's always the hope that government can wave a magic wand and fix these problems, but generally government can't. It is either paralyzed by politics or a lack of money. So the private sector has the obligation, and more important to my work, the opportunity, to get engaged. At the Kumbh Mela there was a central administration for the festival, much as there would be for a big state fair in the United States. It worked in coordination with the smaller religious groups as well as the seventeen big religious organizations involved, the Akharas, which each ran whatever happened in their area—all the activities, all the housing, all the building, most of the food, a lot of the sanitation. As a result, there was an interesting public-private coordination to look at.

Q: How will HBS students benefit from your trip and observations?

A: We are writing a case about the Kumbh Mela focusing on finance and strategy. An A case will be largely descriptive about what we saw on this trip. It will be followed by a B case set at the next festival, which will take place twelve years from now. There are a number of interesting pedagogical things you can do by looking out that far.

When you start with a blank page more than a decade hence, you need to analyze how the next Allahabad Kumbh Mela city will be laid out. Will all of the elements be in the same or different locations, depending on the new channels and the new banks the rivers provide. What will be the sanitary condition of the Ganges? What will India and the world look like economically, politically, and in terms of electricity and water in twelve years? We can put students in the position of the lead administrator and talk about constrained resources and the need to make some choices.

For example, the temporary steel-plate-on-sand roads we saw were made very wide to accommodate and help organize the pilgrims. How will you handle it the next time? Are you going to let the religious groups have all the acreage they ask for and make the roads smaller as a result? Or will you restrict the religious groups' acreage and make the roads even wider to control foot traffic—and land disputes-even more? What about expanding the festival site northward, thereby creating the equivalent of urban sprawl? Or will you encourage some "verticality" instead by constructing a number of two- or three-story buildings at an attractive site? Would commercial interests be rejected, welcomed—or even necessitated? These are all considerations that in one form or another, to one degree or another, apply to the evolution of new cities, not just the Kumbh Mela.

Q: What else makes all this relevant to an HBS student?

A: I study this event through the lens of my second-year MBA elective, Sustainable Cities: Urbanization, Infrastructure, and Finance. The relevant questions are always: What infrastructure is being built, and which people, both in and out of government, are providing it? So the teaching materials we create will use this extraordinary situation to examine the growth of a greenfield site from the perspective not only of an administrator but an entrepreneur. I always try to tie everything back to what my students can imagine themselves doing in four or five years after graduating from HBS. A few may be in a government role. More will be in the private sector as investors or entrepreneurs or managers in big companies, and they will be working all over the world in new cities.

Q: Besides you, faculty members from several other Harvard schools went to the Kumbh Mela. What can you tell us about the fruits of your collective labors now that you have all returned?

A: We're excited about the projects underway under the umbrella of both the Harvard University South Asia Initiative and the Harvard School of Public Health's Global Health Initiative. We all met recently to talk about what each group will produce. We are trying to incorporate and play off each other's efforts in our own work. My HBS colleagues and I will focus on the case studies I've already mentioned. The School of Public Health (SPH) is conducting an examination of the first-responder facilities that dealt with the myriad medical issues that occurred over several months among the millions of people in attendance. There will also be a complex data study of cell phone traffic —telecommunications—during the festival. The Graduate School of Design has tens of thousands of images from the trip that will be accessible on their server. Also on our to-do list will be several symposia and a hardcover book delving into various aspects of the pilgrimage from the viewpoint of the different schools involved.

I plan to publish a multimedia case that will draw on material from the Divinity School's interviews with Hindu religious leaders as to why this pilgrimage matters, along with SPH's findings about all things health related, from the bacteria count in the Ganges to the quality of medical care. That way, the case will help students understand not only how the actual event took place but give them considerable in-depth background material about this phenomenon in a very accessible way-with frameworks and lessons that can be extended to other situations. The research and teaching prospects are fascinating.

About the Author

Jim Aisner is Director of Media Relations for Harvard Business School.

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    • Anonymous
    It is very interesting article. Being Pakistani I know about Kumbh Mela and there are many other festivals like this one held every year in different parts of Pakistan and India.I really want to become a researcher and I really do not know where to start.
    This kind of articles helping me a lot.
    I need a mentor, who can help me, inspire me.
    I really need your help.
    • Rob Jones
    • CEO, IngoodCompany
    This is the making of a great new riddle. Q. "Why did the Harvard Faculty Member cross the road?" A. "To get a better look at what was back on his own side."

    It is gratifying to see Harvard's recognition of great accomplishment elsewhere, and to see great learning taking place well off-campus as opposed to the Kumbh Mela organizers coming to Harvard to learn. Yes, I know this isn't the only instance of it, but it is a most noteworthy example.
    • Sunil Goyal
    • CEO, Ganga Roller Flour Mills
    I first heard about the Harvard study on BBC.

    Now reading the article it gives me a sense of how we could use the learnings from Kumbh to benefit and address larger issues faced by today's world due to rapid urbanization.

    It will be interesting to read Case B, 12 years from now.
    • Dr Ramanand Yadav
    • Assistant Professor, Indian Maritime University
    A commendable work. I would like to thank the team for making the study from multi- dimensional perspectives. I believe, number of lessons can be learned for corporate practices i.e. how groups collectively regulate to practice honesty, responsibility and social accountability, even without any formal learning.
    Once I happen to be in Prayag Kumbh for 15 days somewhere in 1986, with extended family members, and I found that spirituality is related to soul and not to material and/ or any religion alone.
    • Avneesh Verma
    • International Business Management Student, SPJain Institute of management & research, mumbai
    Kumbh Mela is held every third year at one of the four places by rotation: Haridwar, Allahabad (Prayag), Nasik and Ujjain.Thus the Kumbh Mela is held at each of these four places every twelfth year. Ardh ("Half") Kumbh Mela is held at only two places, Haridwar and Allahabad, every sixth year.
    Luckily, I was born in Haridwar. It was 1985 and since then I have witnessed three of these melas namely in 1986, 1998 & 2010. I would like to share my experience here. Kumbh Mela is the world's biggest human gathering as the article mentions; moreover this becomes one big commercial event for the state as well as central government every period. Huge teams are formed in every possible departments like police, red cross, medical attention etc. Case studies about this event also should touch the intricacies of team & capital management.
    Tourism also avails fruits for a longer term even after the whole big event ends. Thousands of exhibitions, circus shows etc are given special permision to perform. Bus stands are always shifted from their original places. This happens because major parts of roads connecting various cities around are mushroomed by travellers. During this season a lot of people are hired by the government to perform the civil services like managing waste etc. Huge population, since is educated and wealty, choose to travel using various plans provides by travel agencies. There are several more concepts which can be touched upon.
    Every period, governments have brought about changes in technology,planning etc. This gives a blink of technological evolution as well.
    As my birth place has been very close to my heart, Kumbh Mela also has been an amazing experience for me and my family.

    I am happy to witness that this is chosen for a study. Case B is where my interest will be 12 times from the first one . Thanks
    • Lav Nigam
    • Founder & President, Larsan Technologies
    I belong to Allahabad where this festival was held. I have visited each and every Kumbh mela and Ardh Kumbh mela (Ardh Kumbh mela is held every 6 years)since the past 30 years. Each Kumbh mela has it's own challenges, including how to accomodate the demands of the religious leaders. This year's Kumbh mela was special since a large crowd in excess of 40 million was expected to bathe on one day, the most auspicious day, Mauni Amavasya. How to manage the large crowd in terms of temporary accomodation, fooding, transportation etc. was the main challenge. I think, the administration did a wonderful job. At the fag end of the day on Mauni Amavasya, their was an accident at the Allahabd railway station. This pointed towards co-ordination problem between the state government and the railways, which is under the central government.
    • johnny
    This post is amazing. I realy like it!
    • Anonymous
    Kumbha is our cultural heritage, passed along for centuries. These were handed down to us by rishes or sages who delved into the complexity of things more deeply than any research scholar in search of business ventures or "grab money where and when you can" philosophy.Please do not interfere in the process and spoil the culture with 'Cola and Burger advertizements.