All you need to know about Kanwar Yatra

Kanwar Yatra is an annual pilgrimage of Shiva devotees, known as Kanwariyas, to Haridwar, Gaumukh and Gangotri in Uttarakhand to fetch Ganga water. They take the water back to their native places for Shiv Lingams in temples
Kanwariyas ferry a Shiva statue on NH-58 after fetching Ganga jal in Haridwar. (HT file)
Kanwariyas ferry a Shiva statue on NH-58 after fetching Ganga jal in Haridwar. (HT file)
Published on Jul 13, 2021 06:31 PM IST
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By Neeraj Santoshi and Sandeep Rawat

The Uttarakhand government is yet to decide whether to allow Kanwar Yatra this year even as experts have warned that allowing it could spark a possible third wave of Covid months after the Mahakumbh seeded clusters of infections during the second wave. Here is all you need to know about the yatra that in 2019 attracted over 36 million pilgrims:

What is Kanwar Yatra

It is an annual pilgrimage of Shiva devotees, known as Kanwariyas, to Haridwar, Gaumukh and Gangotri in Uttarakhand to fetch Ganga water. They take the water back to their native places for Shiv Lingams in temples. Amid fears of the third wave and delta plus variant of the virus, the state government last week decided not to allow the yatra. But two days later, after Uttar Pradesh allowed the yatra, Uttarakhand decided to review its decision by holding talks with other states. The government does not seem to be willing to annoy traders and religious leaders months before the polling in the state.

Almost impossible to check Covid violations

The Mahakumbh experience made it clear that it is difficult to ensure people follow social distancing and wear masks during religious congregations. At least 9.1 million pilgrims visited Haridwar for the Mahakumbh this year amid violations of Covid-19 protocols and massive overcrowding. The gatherings coincided with a surge in cases that inundated hospitals and sparked critical shortages of medical supplies. At least six million people congregated for the mega fair in April amid the worst surge in the second wave of the pandemic.

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Roughly 100,000 of the rapid antigen tests conducted at the Kumbh were also found fake, raising doubts about the efficacy of testing during the event.

Officials in many states such as Madhya Pradesh found local cases that were traced to Kumbh returnees. Between April 1 and April 30, active cases in Uttarakhand registered a spike of 2,392%. The Uttarakhand high court rapped the government and said holding the Kumbh was a mistake.

Haridwar, Dehradun and US Nagar reported 855 or nearly 70% of 1,210 backlog deaths reported in the state, mostly after Mahakumbh, in May and June.

Kanwar Yatra is expected to attract three to four times more devotees than Mahakumbh. Around 30 to 40 million pilgrims are likely to visit Uttarakhand over 15 days compared to over 9 million pilgrims at Mahakumb.

Sanjay Shah, vice president of the Association of Physicians of India, Uttarakhand chapter, said with newer variants of Covid being reported across the country, governments have to be extra cautious. “So, it is very dangerous to allow pilgrimage of this magnitude at this crucial juncture between slowing down of the second wave and the country being on the brink of the third wave. When millions of pilgrims will come, the medical infrastructure in Haridwar will hardly make any difference.”

Challenge of managing huge numbers

The Kanwar Yatra was cancelled because of Covid-19 spread in the country last year. A majority of Kanwariyas in 2019 arrived from Haryana (31 %) and Uttar Pradesh (27 %). Kanwariyas arrive in Uttarakhand via Haridwar district, the gateway to the Garhwal division.

Nearly 10 million Kanwariyas arrive on foot to fetch sacred Ganga waters. The remaining Kanwariyas arrive on two-wheelers, four-wheelers, trucks, trolleys and on public buses and trains. Prior to 2019, the yatra was not funded by the state government and was managed on the district levels. Since then, the state government has been allocating 1 crore for the annual fortnightly pilgrimage.

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In 2019, nearly 7,000 security personnel were deployed for Kanwar Yatra. A nodal Kanwar Mela Force officer of the rank of Superintendent of Police is also appointed for it.

The Kanwar Mela zone is bifurcated into super zones, zones and sectors. As many as 50 odd sector magistrates are appointed to administer the yatra.

Ananya Bhatnagar, a social activist, said the yatra should not be allowed this year. “With such a huge number of pilgrims expected to arrive, the state government should endanger the lives of millions of people.”

Diversion of resources and manpower for the mega event

Experts say when the state is preparing for the third wave, directing huge resources and manpower for the yatra is not a good idea. The same resources and manpower could help the state in improving its readiness for the third wave.

“Uttarakhand is not at all ready and does not have the wherewithal to handle the widely anticipated third wave post the Kanwar Yatra. If the state government relents in the face of pressure from larger states like Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, the yatra could trigger the third wave not only for Uttarakhand but for the entire nation,” said Anoop Nautiyal, founder of Social Development for Communities Foundation, which has been analysing the Covid data in the state.

Nautiyal said while taking a decision on the yatra, the government needs to bear in mind that Standard Operating Procedures are impossible to implement on the ground as was seen during Mahakumbh

What the government is saying

Subodh Uniyal, cabinet minister and a government spokesperson, said that the state government is yet to take a final decision on whether to allow the Kanwar Yatra.

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