Until a week before Delhi resident Sahil Gulati was due to get married, he had second thoughts about whether to go through with the celebration in the middle of the pandemic. Delhi’s healthcare system was being battered by a sharp rise in the number of Covid-19 cases and gasping patients in need of oxygen were dying because they could not find beds in the city’s already-packed hospitals.

Still, after some thought, the Gulati family decided to proceed with the wedding on April 26 – although with a very small reception. “Around 30-40 people from both sides attended the wedding,” said Gulati. “Everyone was masked up and we followed all the guidelines. We didn’t let any of our elders like grandmothers attend the wedding.”

With 26 out of every 100 tests turning up positive, Delhi has nearly 92,000 active Covid-19 cases. Since April 14, the number of Covid-19 deaths in Delhi every day has been in three digits. On May 3, the national capital recorded 448 Covid-related deaths – its highest single day death toll since the onset of pandemic in March last year. On May 6, the city recorded 335 deaths.

In March, a Union government panel on the Covid-19 situation concluded that super-spreader events like weddings might be behind the resurgence of the disease in India. Despite this, weddings have not ceased.

Instead, state governments in many parts of the country have put ceilings on the number of guests allowed to attend gatherings like weddings and funerals. In Delhi, the ceiling for a wedding is 50. In neighbouring Haryana, the limit is 50 guests for outdoor weddings and 30 guests for indoor functions.

Compelling reasons

Why are people still celebrating their weddings despite the evident risks?

Gulati, 30, said that despite the worrying statistics, his family had compelling reasons to proceed with the wedding. Both he and his wife Gurpreet Kaur work in Indonesia as yoga instructors and were planning to return in June. Though Indonesia has since blocked the entry of Indians due to Covid-19 concerns, it was too late to call off the wedding.

“We thought let’s go ahead with it,” Gulati said.

The family had to bear some financial losses. To accommodate guests from outside Delhi, Gulati had booked seven rooms at a hotel. None of them turned up due to Covid-19 situation in Delhi. “A day before my wedding, I had booked a venue for a ring ceremony,” he said. “We cancelled it and I had already paid for the venue in advance.”

Sahil Gulati and Gurpreet Kaur got married in Delhi on April 26.

Rakesh Harjai, a wedding planner in Haryana’s Rohtak said that weddings are proceeding because families simply didn’t have enough time to cancel them. Weddings continued in April, but many scheduled for May have been postponed, he said.

Sanket Vijayasarathy, 29, the assistant editor on a tech website who lives in Delhi’s Dwarka, explained the various considerations he was juggling before he took a call on whether to proceed with his wedding on May 9.

When his wedding date was fixed in January, Vijayasarathy’s family decided to organise a medium-sized gathering at a private hotel for the celebration. Now, with the rise in the number of infections, Vijayasarathy says they are reluctant to hold the wedding even at home. “People are still doing it with 50 people,” he said. “But we felt that would only be risky. We don’t want anyone to get infected because of our wedding.”

Vijayasarathy’s in-laws hail from Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, some 100 kilometres from his home. The family is weighing the risk that travelling in the pandemic could pose risk to their in-laws. “Our parents are vaccinated but still we are not sure whether it’s a good idea to travel in this situation,” Vijayasarathy said.

As far as the venue is concerned, the hotel has agreed to host the function on any other date this year. “We have already deposited the amount with them,” he said. “If we cancel the venue completely then we are losing money. That’s why we haven’t. We are thinking of using the venue at a later date.”

When Scroll.in interviewed him on April 30, he was yet to make a decision. “We haven’t taken a final call yet but how things are, we are not sure whether it will happen on May 9 or should it be postponed,” said Vijayasarathy, an assistant editor with a tech website.

Celebrations postponed

But many others have already postponed their weddings.

“Ninety percent of weddings in Delhi scheduled between April 22 to mid-July have been cancelled,” said Ramesh Dang, president of Community Welfare Banquet Association Delhi. “People have been scared by the sudden spike in Covid-19 cases. Those who are going ahead with weddings are doing it with just a few people.”

Rohtak wedding planner Harjai confirmed the trend. Since April 22, Harjai’s company has organised four weddings. But of six weddings scheduled in May, three have already been postponed. Many weddings have been rescheduled for later part of the year in the hope that situation will be normal by then,

The postponements and cancellations, Dang said, is going to take a heavy toll on an industry that was already reeling from the impact of last year’s pan-India lockdown. He said that there are around 1,000 wedding venues in Delhi, out of which 70%-80% are premises that are not owned by the people who operate them. “How are we supposed to pay rent when there’s no money to make?” Dang asked.

Despite all the restrictions and ceilings ordered by the governments, public health activists are not in favour of weddings being allowed at the peak of the pandemic. In case they are allowed, the restrictions and ceilings should be stricter, they say.

“Even if somebody is going ahead with the wedding, the number of people attending the function should be around four or five people,” said Dr Sulakshana Nandi, national joint-convener, Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, a network of activists and organisations campaigning for right to health. “People with health issues or who have not been vaccinated shouldn’t be allowed to attend.”

If the weddings are put off altogether, the state machinery would be better equipped to manage the pandemic, Nandi said. “Having weddings at this time brings an unnecessary toll on the state machinery, police and other local level community leaders who are forced to monitor these weddings,” she said. “It’s actually the issue of prioritisation.”

Dr Antony Kollanuur, an independent monitor with the government’s National Health Mission, echoed Nandi’s views. “In my opinion, all gatherings should be curtailed,” he said. “People need to choose between life and death.”

‘Avoid celebrations’

Speaking on condition of anonymity, officials in Delhi and Haryana acknowledge that there has been mass cancellation of weddings in the two regions with a surge in Covid-19 cases. However, it would have been better had there been a complete ban on weddings in the current situation, they concede.

“If I am given the authority, I would have imposed a strict lockdown across the area of my jurisdiction 10-15 days before,” a senior official in the Haryana government told Scroll.in. “You can only fight this virus by slowing down its spread. That’s why the lockdown.”

But the official said that he has found an effective strategy to prevent the gatherings like weddings in his jurisdiction. “We are basically slowly turning the entire town into a micro-containment zone,” he said. “You can’t have weddings/gatherings in micro-containment zones despite prior permission from the authorities.”

A district level official in Delhi told Scroll.in that it’s practically impossible for the administration to monitor gatherings despite all the ceilings on the number of guests and containment measures.

“It’s simple,” he said. “We don’t have the manpower to be at each and every place. That’s why the cooperation of the public is essential and they should avoid gatherings like weddings.”