Dehradun: In a major embarrassment to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat and former Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat clashed over the accountability on the alleged fake COVID-19 tests during the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar that acted as a super spreader throughout the country during April this year.
The war of words between the two BJP leaders started following registration of the first FIR (first information report) by the state health authorities against private laboratories for alleged fake COVID tests.
Adding fuel to the raging controversy, which could adversely impact the ruling BJP politically in the upcoming Assembly polls scheduled to be held early next year, former Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat, taking pot shots at the present dispensation headed by Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat, said that the testing scam was a serious crime and not negligence. He demanded an impartial investigation and stringent punishment for those involved.
Trivendra Singh Rawat was replaced by Tirath Singh Rawat by the BJP high command in March this year. The Kumbh mela was held in April, 2021.
The former CM denied that tenders for COVID testing during Kumbh Mela were finalised during his tenure. Demanding a judicial probe, he said that a through probe should be initiated to determine when and who gave the tenders. He further said that it was possible that the Mela administration had itself clinched the tenders for testing.
Reacting on the statement by his RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) colleague, Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat said he took over in March this year and the issue was an old one. He said that as soon as he came to know about the issue, he immediately ordered a probe and registration of FIR in the matter.
The fake testing issue has snowballed into a major controversy with main opposition, Congress, and other opposition parties demanding a judicial probe into the scandal.
Suryakant Dhasmana , senior vice-president of Uttarakhand Congress, charged ruling BJP of playing with the lives of the people for fake vanity. He said an impartial judicial probe could unearth the scandal which led to deaths of thousands of people across the country after the Kumbh Mela.
One of the major decisions of Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat after taking over reins of the state in March this year was to order a full scale Kumbh Mela despite advice by experts against holding such a mega event at a time when the second wave of COVID-19 was raging across the country. The Chief Minister had announced that unlike the Tablighi Jamaat incident in 2020, wherein the organisation was accused of spreading the virus after a congregation, the Kumbh Mela is held in the open and “with the grace of Goddess Ganga”, the virus would not spread.
According to rough estimates nearly a million people took a holy dip in river Ganga during the four-month long Kumbh period from January to April, with majority of pilgrims thronging the Mela in April.
The lid on the testing scandal blew off last week, when a Faridkot resident complained to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) that he had received a message regarding collecting his COVID testing report despite the fact that he never went for a test. An initial investigation revealed that more than one lakh to four lakh fake antigen test reports were given to the pilgrims.
As per official records, from April 1 to 30, a total of 600,831 COVID-19 tests were conducted, of which only 17,317 were positive during Kumbh Mela, which comes to a positivity rate of 2.88% at a time when the whole state of Uttarakhand was reporting 14% infection rate.
Apart from the fake COVID test controversy in Kumbh mela, the former Chief Minister and the present government also differed on an Islamophobic observation made by Trivendra Singh Rawat. Commenting on the ongoing vaccination programme, Trivendra Singh Rawat said it had come to his notice that there was resistance amongst the Muslim community toward the vaccination programme. He further claimed that in some Muslim localities, the vaccination teams even faced protests and resistance in the state. Interestingly, Uttarakhand Government’s official spokesperson and agriculture Minister Subodh Uniyal denied any such instance and said that the state government has not yet received any report of the Muslim community resisting COVID vaccines from anywhere in the state.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Uttarakhand.