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Three is a crowd. What’s 250 million?

India’s farmers’ protests are being called the largest civic protests in world history. I want to know — who sat down and counted all those millions of people?

Women participate in ‘Kisan Mazdoor Rally’ in support of the farmers’ agitation at New Grain Market in Barnala on Sunday. PIC/PTI

Today is Pagdi Sambhal Diwas for Indian farmers. The original song, Pagdi Sambhal, jatta, written by Banke Dayal in 1906, tells Sikh farmers to hang on to their turbans, hold on to their dignity and fight against the ruthless and crushing agrarian regulations of the British. Today, the same protest is back and the agrarian laws look equally unscrupulous but the oppressor, it seems, is now within.

If a law is unjust, it should not matter whether one person protests or a million do. Still, numbers matter. If an aerial photograph showed the 13.4 kms of Delhi’s Rajpath jam-packed with protesters from Rashtrapati Bhavan to India Gate, you would surely nod and say, “This must be some serious issue.” But if I asked you to estimate the size of that crowd, you’d be a mess.

We are told between 200,000 and 300,000 farmers have been protesting in and around Delhi since November against three agrarian laws rammed through by the government without much debate. On November 26 last year, in the thick of the pandemic, we heard that 250 million Indians nationwide went on strike in support of the farmers. On Republic Day,  “tens of thousands” of farmers in “150,00 tractors”reportedly upended the ceremonies at Delhi’s Red Fort.

Nitish Pahwa, writing in Slate online, joyously called it “the biggest protest in world history” (though his first sentence sneakily hedges the bet by adding “may have been”). 

The same number, 250 million, was cited in the January 2020 edition of The Wire online describing the nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

In 2003, the world had seen what was then described as the largest single coordinated protests in history. Some 10 to 15 million people (estimates vary widely) marched in more than 600 cities against George W Bush’s Iraq war. They made no difference, of course.

Who counted these numbers? How do you count 250 million people marching all over the country, who came together without even much notice?

I instinctively mistrust numbers, especially those ending with several zeroes, and so should you. Crowd counting has never been a science as much as a best-guess aggregated using several methods and perspectives. However, its importance has been spiking sharply of late. As teeming populations of the homeless flee from war zones, seek sanctuary from droughts and drug lords or march against authoritarian regimes, the need for better estimates has become urgent.

Between us, I would not be able to tell apart a crowd of 2.5 crores from one of 25 crores, and you’d be lying if you said you could. When there are too many people, we lean on words like unprecedented, massive and humongous. We humans really struggle with visualising numbers larger than a few dozens.

There are several algorithms for estimating crowd size, some newer ones even drawing data from drones and tethered balloons with 360° cameras, but I would rather ask why we estimate crowds than how.

There is assumed to be a direct correlation between the number of people who show up for a cause and the importance of that cause. It is, therefore, a given that the organisers of a rally — such as the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, spearheading the farmers’ movement — stand to benefit by overstating the turnouts while their targets, the government, have a stake in minimising them. 

In other words, there is no reason why any number you read is likely to be true.

I have been trying to find out how many attended 2019’s sustained pro-democracy rallies in Hong Kong. The New York Times estimated that the protest on Human Rights Day stretched “several miles”. As many as 800,000 people attended the march, they reported, but their source happened to be the Civil Human Rights Front, the organisers of the march. The Chinese government might have chosen to lop off a few zeroes.

Crowd science says that area and density are two characteristics of crowds. The tightest packing, called mosh pit density after rowdy crowds at heavy metal concerts, is 2.5 square feet per person. In such a crowd, you would not fall down even if you could somehow lift both feet off the ground.

You should be astonished if crowd estimates in the media are based on anything but wishful thinking. If all the alleged 250 million who protested in support of Indian farmers on November 26 had been packed into the gardens of Rajpath at mosh pit density, they would have covered no more 7% of the area of those gardens. Suddenly the nationwide protest would have felt more like a congregation than a revolution.

Here’s a reality check — how many people would you say accompanied Gandhi in his historic Salt March that sparked India’s freedom movement? The disappointing, or perhaps inspiring, answer is — 79.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com. The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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