There are only two days till the beginning of Bohag Bihu, one of the biggest festivals in the northeastern state of Assam, which also marks the start of the Assamese new year. While the people were preparing to welcome the year with much gusto this year, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown marred celebrations last year.
However, another wave of the pandemic and the Assam government-issued Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), has left the organising committees in a fix about the stage concerts and celebrations. On April 11, the umbrella body of organising committees – the All Assam Bihu Samannayrakshi Samiti, consisting of 30 committees staged a protest at the Latasil ground in the city, demanding the relaxation of the guidelines.
According to the members of the apex body, they are not demanding a complete withdrawal of the new guidelines but want some changes in them. “It will be very difficult for any Bihu Committee to end Bihu celebrations by 11 PM as has been asked by the government as part of the Bihu SOP. It is known that Bihu celebrations begin late at night and end by 5-6 AM the next morning. We have sought few changes in the SOP," Kailash Nath Sharma, advisor of the Brihattar Guwahati Bihu Sanmilani Sammannayrakshi Samiti was quoted as saying.
Among the demands forwarded by the Bihu organising committees are extension of the deadline to end from 11 PM to 1 AM, no mandatory COVID-19 test for organising committee members, provision of volunteers and sanitizers in all the function areas.
According to reports, the adviser also said, "Bihu functions are held in open spaces, in fields. It is impossible for any organising committee to inform the administration or the government prior to the celebrations about the number of people who would attend as has been mentioned in the SOP. It is always a constant flow of people and hundreds attend the functions.”
Not only that, he also pointed out the inconvenience and lack of manpower and resources in the hands of Bihu committees in sanitising such large open space. The committee members have also highlighted the timing of the SOP, which has been released just days ahead of the festival.
According to Diganta Kumar Baruah, secretary of the Pandu Bihu Samiti in Maligaon, which is known for one of the biggest functions in Guwahati, they have already invested huge amounts to the tune of Rs 10 lakh on stage construction, advance payments to artists and other arrangements. In such a situation, the new SOP have left them in a spot, as they can neither cancel nor arrange the function according to the the instructions issued by the government.
This is not all, Baruah also told media that the new guidelines will affect the artists and all those involved in different roles in the organising committees.
“Bihu committees are gearing up for celebration of the festival after the State health and family welfare minister Himanta Biswa Sarma declared that there would be no COVID-related restrictions in Bihu celebrations this year. The artistes and the people related to it had to suffer heavy losses last year. If the government is not ready to make changes in the SOP then they should financially compensate the bihu committees and the artistes,” Sharma was quoted as saying in The Assam Tribune.
There is also widespread dissatisfaction against the government and its dual standards in dealing with crowds in Bihu functions and in political rally. Faizul Haque, general secretary of the Samiti, said that, “Just a few days back there were huge crowds in the election rallies, but it is only now that the government is remembering about COVID 19 protocols and issuing guidelines.”
“Even now PM Narendra Modi is addressing huge crowds in West Bengal as part of the election campaign. Is there no COVID-19 there? Why such biased attitude?,” questioned Bolen Bharali, the member of another committee.
They also submitted a memorandum to the Kamrup District Commissioner’s office stating their demands including the fact that the organising committees stand to incur huge financial losses if the government does not introduce changes in the SOP at the earliest.