Officials say they are struggling to impose safety norms in Haridwar, Uttarakhand due to the massive several million people gathered to take a dip in the Ganges river at the Kumbh Mela as the second lethal coronavirus wave rages across India.
The devotees are marking an auspicious bathing day on Monday at the Kumbh Mela religious festival in Haridwar city in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand where they believe that the river is holy and bathing in it will cleanse them of their sins and bring salvation. Haridwar is an ancient city and an important Hindu pilgrimage site in North India’s Uttarakhand state, where the River Ganges exits the Himalayan foothills.
The Kumbh Mela takes place every 12 years and the venue is chosen from amongst four cities, including Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik, and Ujjain.
On Monday, India recorded more than 168,000 new cases, overtaking Brazil to become the country with the second-highest number of cases globally.
Presently, India is reporting more than 100,000 cases daily in the past few weeks and when Haridwar’s turn came to host the gathering, coronavirus cases have risen wildly and uncontrollably across the nation.
With 13.5 million cases, India is now only behind the United States which has reported more than 31 million cases. With 13.4 million cases, Brazil is now at number three.
Health experts had appealed for the Kumbh Mela festival to be cancelled, but the government went ahead stating that safety norms would be followed.
A senior police official told ANI news agency that it was very difficult to ensure social distancing on the river banks.
“We are continuously appealing to people to follow COVID-appropriate behaviour. But due to the huge crowd, it is practically not possible to issue challans [fines],” inspector general of police Sanjay Gunjyal said.
He said that a “stampede-like situation” could arise if the police tried to enforce social distancing on the river banks.
Officials said by noon more than 2.1 million devotees had bathed in the river, with many more expected to follow suit. Monday – Somvati Amavasya – marks the biggest bathing day during the two-month-long festival.
The government had earlier said that only people with COVID negative reports would be allowed at the festival and strict measures like social distancing would be followed.
A large number of people including top saints, have already tested positive.
It is anticipated that Monday’s bathing day will facilitate and strengthen the virus further, enabling it to spread faster among the devotees and that some of them could also take the virus back to their cities and villages in other parts of the country.
The second wave is chaotic with a shortage of vaccines, ventilators and hospital beds while life-saving drugs have started coming in from different parts of the country. Hospital authorities reveal that there is an overflow of dead bodies from different parts of the country. Crematoriums and graveyards are crowded with dead bodies. There are mass burials and cremations in the same funeral pyres due to lack of space.
India has given more than 100 million doses so far but this needs to be hastened up to curb the spread of the pandemic, experts say.
When one sees these gigantic religious and political gatherings endorsed by political leaders, citizens ask, “Are the leaders of our nation really serious about eradicating the pandemic?”