9.1 million thronged Mahakumbh despite Covid-19 surge: Govt data
At least 9.1 million pilgrims visited Haridwar for the Mahakumbh this year, the event’s organisers announced on Thursday, underlining the risk of infection at the mega event that was widely criticised for rampant violation of Covid-19 protocols and massive overcrowding during an alarming surge in cases that inundated hospitals and sparked critical shortages of medical supplies.
The Kumbh Mela Force, a government body, said 9.1 million pilgrims took the holy dip in the Ganga from January 14 to April 27. The bulk of this -- at least six million people -- congregated in April, coinciding with the worst surge in the second wave of the pandemic.
The highest gathering of 3.5 million was reported for the Somvati Amavasya holy dip, or the first shahi snan, on April 12. On March 11, for Maha Shivratri, 3.2 million pilgrims arrived for the bath. 1.3 million pilgrims gathered on Mesh Sankranti-Baisakhi, or the second shahi snan, on April 14. For the third shahi snan, on April 27, the numbers plummetted to about 25,000, though there was little adherence to any Covid protocols.
Kumbh Mela Force inspector general Sanjay Gunjiyal said their major task was to ensure peaceful completion of the Mahakumbh. “...with the support of Akharas [sects], seers, local people and volunteers... [the force] ensured the fair was held smoothly with Covid-19...[protocols],” he said.
The Mahakumbh is held every 12 years between January and April. This year, the government curtailed it to one month and notified that the mela will begin on April 1. But millions congregated in Haridwar weeks before.
The announcement came a day after the Uttarakhand high court observed that organising the Mahakumbh made the state a laughing stock, mirroring similar criticism from health experts who hold the massive gatherings responsible for driving the virus surge in the hill state. At least 100 seers and mela officials have fallen ill and four have died, forcing some of the biggest akhadas, or holy sects, to call for an early end to the event.On April 17, Prime Minister Narendra Modi requested seers to ensure symbolic participation in the event.
Association of Physicians of India, Uttarakhand Chapter vice president Dr Sanjay Shah said number of seers getting positive and going back to their respective states is a matter of serious concern. “Covid-19 positive cases have risen sharply in Haridwar, with back-to-back Shahi Snans in mid-April which witnessed over 4 million pilgrim influx in a span of just 2 days. Testing and tracing need to be carried out at a large level now,” he said.
Last week, the Union health ministry warned that the gathering of devotees could send cases surging. The number of infections in Haridwar has zoomed from total 15,226 on April 1 to total 31,596 .On April 1, Uttarakhand had 2,236 active Covid-19 cases but this ballooned to 48,318 on Thursday. Deaths have increased from 48,318 on April 1 to 2,508 on Thursday.
Surjeet Singh Pawar, the superintendent of Kumbh police, said their personnel were Covid-19 tested prior to their departure after mela duty.
Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad, the apex body of all the akharas, lauded the mela administration. “Due to commitment by the government and dedication of the Kumbhmela administrative personnel despite the Covid scenario, the fair was held successfully, ” said Shri Mahant Hari Giri Maharaj, Akhara Parishad general secretary.
The state had issued Covid protocols, which included making negative test mandatory. But observers and experts said the most norms were breached because the number of tests were too few, mask mandates were not strictly enforced and millions of devotees made any distancing impossible.