Kedarnath shrine (HT archive)
Kedarnath shrine (HT archive)

Uttarakhand puts Char Dham yatra on hold amid spike

This year, the portals of Yamunotri shrine will be opened on May 14, while the portals of Gangotri shrine will be opened on May 15. Portals of Kedarnath will be opened on May 17 and May 18 is the date for opening of the portals of Badrinath shrine.
PUBLISHED ON APR 30, 2021 02:22 AM IST

Burnt by its experience with the Mahakumbh, and worried that the Char Dham yatra could end up being another super-spreader event, the Uttarakhand government on Thursday postponed the pilgrimage to four of the holiest Hindu shrines in the state, scheduled to start on May 14.

The move comes even as a surging second wave of Covid-19 wave has pushed daily infections above the 350,000-mark daily in the country, with an active caseload of over 3 million overwhelming the health care system. The Uttarakhand government was widely criticised for its poor management of the Mahakumbh, with most Covid safety protocol being followed more in the breach than in the observance; the Centre too was criticised for allowing the event to go ahead.

But the state seems to have woken up to the threat of Covid-19 now.

“Even locals will not be allowed inside the shrines,” said chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat who, ahead of the Kumbh, spoke of how faith would overcome fear. “Only priests of the Char Dham shrines will perform rituals and worship. People will not be allowed to undertake the yatra [pilgrimage], given the sharp increase in Covid-19 cases.”

Officials said the portals of the shrines of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri, and Gangotri will remain open during the pilgrimage season.

Four senior seers died of Covid-19 after participating in Mahakumbh in Uttarakhand’s Haridwar this month. Millions of devotees attended the mega fair from April 1, when the state had 2,236 active Covid-19 cases. The number of active cases rose to 45,383 on Wednesday.

Swami Avdheshanand Giri, Mahamandleshwar (head) of Juna Akhada, the largest of the 13 sects of seers, was on April 17 forced to declare the conclusion of the Mahakumbh amid the surge in the cases. The announcement came after a phone call from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who requested only symbolic participation in the fourth and last Shahi Snan (holy dip) in the Ganga at the mega fair on April 27.

Ravinath Raman, the chief executive officer of Char Dham Devasthanam Management Board, said a meeting was held on Thursday, where the decision to postpone the pilgrimage due to the Covid-19 situation was taken. “If later in the year, the situation improves, the yatra can be allowed with conditions and Covid curbs.”

Political and religious gatherings have been cited among the reasons for the worst surge of Covid-19 infections that India faces. The second wave of the pandemic has pushed the death toll in the country over 200,000 and starved hospitals of life-saving medical oxygen and beds.

Uttarakhand has been reporting its highest ever daily cases and Covid deaths for the past week. On Wednesday, the state reported 6,054 cases and 108 deaths, the highest in a day since March last year.

Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri, and Gangotri are collectively called Char Dham and millions visit them annually. The pilgrimage begins from Yamunotri in the west. It then proceeds to Gangotri and finally to Kedarnath and Badrinath in the east.

The pilgrimage could not begin last year as per schedule on April 26 with the opening of portals of Yamunotri and Gangotri, the first two shrines that are opened after winter, because of the lockdown imposed to check the pandemic spread in March 2020.

The shrines were opened for local pilgrims on July 1 last year and for those from other states in the last week of that month. In September, the Uttarakhand government removed the condition of having negative Covid-19 reports for pilgrims to undertake the pilgrimage.

Officials said the portals of the Yamunotri shrine will be opened on May 14 and that of Gangotri on May 15 on the occasion of Akshay Tritiya. Portals of Kedarnath and Badrinath shrines will be opened on May 17 and May 18.

Anoop Nautiyal, the founder of Dehradun-based think tank Social Development for Communities who has been analysing Covid-19 data in the state, welcomed the decision to postpone the yatra. “Once the caseload, deaths, and positivity rate decline, we can consider restarting the yatra with suitable precautions. In the meantime, the government must provide financial support to the tourism and pilgrimage sector. Mass vaccination and urgent ramping up of public health infrastructure is the need of the hour.”

Congress spokesperson Garima Dasauni said the move to postpone the pilgrimage is a practical one. “The government should also think of taxi operators, dhaba and hotel owners, shopkeepers and others involved in the yatra whose livelihoods will be affected. The government should provide them some monetary help.”

Manveer Singh Chauhan, the state media in charge of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party said the government is fully committed to fighting the pandemic with all possible resources. “With the present pandemic situation, the move was much needed. As far as the livelihood of those connected with the yatra is concerned, the government will soon announce some relief measures for them.”

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