Thousands of devotees on Friday took a dip in the Ganga river in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh as a ritual of the Makar Sankranti festival even as the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic continued to rage in India.
In visuals from prominent Hindu pilgrim sites, Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh and the Sagar Island in West Bengal, devotees could be seen bathing in the river and crowding on its banks without adhering to Covid-19 norms like physical distancing and use of masks.
However, authorities claimed that they did their best to screen the devotees as per guidelines issued by the state governments.
More than 3.5 lakh pilgrims took the a dip at the confluence of the Ganga and the Bay of Bengal at Sagar Island in South 24 Parganas district, PTI reported. Since midnight, people have been gathering for the Gangasagar Mela (fair) organised on the river banks and to offer prayers at the nearby Kapil Muni temple.
Speaking to PTI, a district official claimed that they had allowed only those who had shown a negative RT-PCR test report and a certificate of full vaccination. However, locals told the news agency that there was no physical distancing among the pilgrims at the site.
Last week, the Calcutta High Court had allowed the West Bengal government to host the annual Gangasagar Mela. The court had formed a three-member committee to oversee the fair and adherence to Covid protocols.
The norms advised by the court included sprinkling of the water from the Ganga river, considered to be holy, on the devotees so that they do not have to take a dip, NDTV reported.
“We have arranged for sprinkling of the holy water from drones so that there is no crowding,” state minister Bankim Chandra Hazra told the news channel. “But the sadhus [seers] are bent on taking the dip. We can’t prevent them.”
West Bengal has been reporting a test positivity rate of more than 30% over the last few weeks. On Sunday, the state had logged an all-time high of 24,287 fresh cases of Covid-19. On Thursday too, 23,467 people tested positive for the coronavirus disease and 26 died.
Meanwhile, around three lakh devotees took dips in the Ganga river in Uttar Pradesh’s Prayagraj city, according to Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar. The Makar Sankranti festival marks the beginning of the Magh Mela in the city.
On Thursday, Uttar Pradesh Chief Secretary Durga Shankar Mishra had ordered the district administration to ensure that the Covid-19 norms are followed at the pilgrim site, The Times of India reported.
Chief Minister Adityanath had also urged children, elderly people, pregnant women and people with comorbidities to avoid bathing in the river.
However, photos from Prayagraj showed devotees were not wearing masks and adhering to physical distancing norms during Friday’s festivities.
Meanwhile, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan allowed the ritualistic bath on Makar Sankranti, even as he announced that schools will remain shut in the state between January 15 and January 31, ANI reported.
During the second wave of the pandemic last year, the violation of Covid-19 protocols at Kumbh Mela in Uttarakhand’s Haridwar in April had attracted attention from across the world. However, state authorities, including the then Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat, had tried to downplay the risks.
The World Health Organization had said that religious and political gatherings had contributed to a surge in Covid-19 cases in India during the second wave.