As Uttarakhand recorded its highest single-day spike in COVID-19 cases on Thursday with top saints at the Kumbh testing positive, the second largest of the 13 akhadas taking part in the event decided to pull out.
Meanwhile, the newly appointed Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, Teerath Singh Rawat on Tuesday went on record saying that with the blessing of holy river Ganges, there will be no coronavirus at the Haridwar Kumbh where lakhs of devotees were taking part every day. But the staggering number of top saints getting infected, as many as 68 between April 5 and April 15 according to a Times of India report, flies in the face of Rawat’s claim. The rising number of positive cases in the recent days also suggest otherwise.
R Sharma, 56, a native of Uttar Pradesh’s Raebareli, who went to the Kumbh with his friends to bathe in the first shahi snan, said that faith is important as the Kumbh Mela is held once in 12 years.
“I have been attending all the Kumbh Melas and this was also important. This is a matter of faith and Covid-19 cannot deter it. I went there after check-up and see, I returned healthy. If you bathe in the pious river Ganga, Corona will never dare to affect you,” he told Newsclick.
On being asked about the checking and other arrangements at the Mela ground, Sharma said, “Our negative report was asked by the policemen while we were entering the Mela ground but inside no one asked us about it. People were enjoying the festival like there is no corona.”
The north Indian state of Uttarakhand is holding the holy bathing festival, Kumbh, in Hardiwar district since April 1 amidst the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.The Kumbh festival will officially continue till April 30.
However, with rising cases of Covid-19 among the saints at the Kumbh and top seer Mahamandaleshwar Kapil Dev Das (65) of the Nirwani Akhada dying on Thursday due to the coronavirus, the Niranjani Akhada has announced its exit from the grand festival. Ravindra Puri, the Mahant of Niranjani Akhada that is the second largest of the 13 Akhadas, said that “many in our akhada are showing Covid-19 symptoms” in the camps at Haridwar, PTI reported.
Meanwhile, the President of the Akhil Bharatiya Akhada Parishad Narendra Giri is also Covid-19 positive and recuperating at AIIMS-Rishikesh.
The Akhada Parishad, the apex body of all the 13 akhadas, is planning to take part in the next shahi snan (royal bath) on April 27, but only with a few saints, the Times of India reported.
In the past four days (April 12-15), the Haridwar district, which is hosting the Kumbh Mela, has reported 2,140 positive cases. The district hosted the first shahi snan of this Kumbh on April 12, in which more than 35 lakh people participated, as per the official figures while on April 14, over 13.5 lakh people bathed in the Ganges.
On the other hand, as per the data available with the Uttarakhand government, 408 positive cases were reported in Haridwar on April 12, 594 on April 13, and 525 on April 14, and on the very next day, i.e April 15, the district reported 623 positive cases. The state overall recorded the highest single-day spike of 2,200 cases on April 15 taking the total cases to 1,16,244 with the death toll at 1,802.
Arrangements and Guidelines by the government:
In order to avoid the spread, Uttarakhand government updated its standard operating process (SOP) a day before the Kumbh fair started and made it mandatory for everyone to produce a negative RT-PCR test report conducted in less than 72 hours to participate in the bathing festival. Those attending the Kumbh are mandated to register on the Kumbh website of the Uttarakhand government. People aged over 65, under 10 or with serious illnesses, have been advised not to attend. Only vaccinated health and frontline workers are to be deployed at the Kumbh Mela.
However, the Inspector General Sanjay Gunjyal, Haridwar range, on the day of shahi snan said, “It is very difficult for us to maintain the social distancing and we are not issuing challans to people today as it may lead to a stampede kind of situation. On normal fair days, we had fined people for not following social distancing.”
However, on the second shahi snan, challans were issued by the authorities to people for not following social distancing but only at the non-crowded ghats and not the main ones, which people thronged in large numbers.
Moreover, not all pilgrims bring the negative RT-PCR report but are being allowed to participate in the Kumbh Mela. According to an Indian Express report, people with the negative RT PCR report or vaccination certificate were let through while Thermal Screening and Rapid Antigen tests were only performed at the state border but not in the Kumbh Mela area.
The authorities posted at the Kumbh fair claimed that 350 CCTV cameras have been installed around the fair area and that crowd monitoring would be done with the help of GIS-based software. An AI app will also show authorities where the crowd pressure is high and help with diversion.
One upside in that people are not being allowed to camp near the river beds and they are staying at different facilities spread across Haridwar and Rishikesh.
According to a Delhi-based senior epidemiologist who wished to remain anonymous, “The government of India should have never allowed such a big bathing festival as there is much possibility that it may become a superspreader.”
She said that as the Covid-19 cases were increasing, a ban on social interaction was a significantly required step. “Large gatherings have the potential to turn to a superspreader event when considering the new variant which is more transmissible,” she said, adding, “The more the virus replicates, the likely new variants could emerge and this is very likely happening.”
The Kumbh area has 76 ghats out of which 13 are being used for the shahi snan and they remain the most crowded ones. To avoid the spread of Covid-19, Delhi had advised the Uttarakhand government to set up temporary hospitals with 1,200 beds, and mobile testing facilities for Covid-19 in the fair area.
At present, 2,800 Covid-19 beds are available in hospitals in Haridwar, Rishikesh and Dehradun. Calls made to the health department principal secretary to know the availability of beds went unanswered.