Over the last few days, even as COVID-19 cases in India rose to dizzying heights, thousands have converged in Uttarakhand's Haridwar for Kumbh Mela celebrations. And as some on social media draw a parallel with the Tablighi Jamaat event of last year, Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat has found himself staunchly defending the situation.
This, he said, was a very different situation with no basis for comparison. "Markaz was in a closed hall. All the people slept in a single hall with close contacts. They shared blankets. On the contrary, there are 16 ghats in Kumbh. Not just Haridwar, Kumbh is spread from Rishikesh to Nilkanth. Devotees take bath in different ghats at different times," he contended.
Indoor and outdoor venues aside, the Chief Minister also appears to be convinced that the location of the festivities on the banks of the river Ganga was deterrent enough. "Most importantly, Kumbh is at the bank of the River Ganga. Maa Ganga's blessings are there in the flow. So, there should be no corona," he was quoted as saying by news agency ANI.
Unfortunately, the virus itself does not seem to have received this memo. Even as the festivities continued with 6 lakh devotees arriving in Haridwar for Baisakhi snan on Wednesday, reports indicated that more than a thousand people had tested positive in the two days of the event.a
Under normal circumstances, Kumbh continues for nearly four months but this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the duration of the congregation has been curtailed to one month. This year, the Kumbh Mela that in Haridwar is taking place from April 1 to April 30. According to the Uttarakhand health department, there are 9,353 active COVID-19 cases in the state. The state government has released a set of guidelines, which require people to strictly adhere to COVID-19 norms, including a negative RT-PCR test report.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Visuals shared by news agencies show people milling about in close quarters without masks, offering prayers in packed temples or taking a dip in crowded ghats. ANI had earlier quoted Kumbh Mela IG Sanjay Gunjyal as stating that while they were constantly appealing to people to follow COVID-19 protocols, the size of the crowd made it impossible to issue challans or ensure proper social distancing.
"A stampede-like situation may arise if we would try to enforce social distancing at ghats so we are unable to enforce social distancing here," he had said on Monday.