At Kumbh, some not tested, others not given results
When an ambulance rolled into an akhada in Haridwar early in April to carry out Covid tests of the Kumbh Mela pilgrims assembled there, scores of seers queued up outside with their identity proofs.
Over the next few hours, the ambulance staff took down their names, phone and Aadhaar numbers, but conducted no tests. “We waited and waited while the staff had meals at our bhandara. A few hours later, they drove away without testing any of us. They never provided any reason,” recounted Govind Das, a Naga sadhu at the Panch Nirmohi Ani Akhada, one of the smaller akhadas, in Haridwar.
Three testing camps were held at the akhada in the first half of April. Sita Ram, a seer, said he got tested on two occasions but neither received a text confirming the test nor any results.
Many of the akhada’s members had similar complaints: Sample collectors not conducting tests, not taking down their contact details and not informing them of results. Similar allegations were levelled by members of at least two other akhadas.
Together, they pointed to new allegations that, in addition to fudging data about 100,000 rapid antigen tests during the Mahakumbh in April, some labs conducted no tests at all.
“We will probe whether the accused private labs carried out tests in the first place. We’ll also simultaneously probe if the tests they seemed to carry out were genuine or just an eyewash,” said Haridwar senior superintendent of police (SSP) Senthil Avoodai Krishnaraj.
Roughly 9.1 million people thronged the Kumbh mela this year despite experts saying the crowds and rampant violation of Covid protocol could spark a surge in infections. Many Kumbh returnees contracted Covid and infected others in various states, said authorities. At the time, the mela administration said it was taking all possible precautions by conducting rapid tests and holding on-site testing camps.
But allegations of fake testing surfaced last week after a Faridkot resident complained to the authorities that he received a message for collecting his Covid report despite never having been tested. The complaint triggered a probe that unearthed roughly 100,000 fake rapid antigen tests. Three firms – a Delhi-based lab, a Hisar-based lab and a Noida-based private agency – have been booked.
“Testing camps were held at this akhada three times during the Kumbh Mela. Only once did they even bother to take the phone numbers of the saints they tested. If they were not going to tell us our results, we don’t know why they even kept visiting us,” said Rajender Das, president of the Panch Nirmohi Ani Akhada.
At the Nirvaani Ani Akhada, which has 1,000 members, Chittaranjan Das said that two camps over a week were held in April and around 300 seers gave their swab samples, but to no avail . “The testing staff wouldn’t even ask for our phone numbers. They said they would give us our results in a day or two,” said Chittaranjan.
When the results didn’t arrive, the seers confronted the sample collectors when they returned a week later. “This time they assured us that the results would surely be given the next day. The results never came,” Chittaranjan added.
But other members said after the altercation, the lab staff took away two seers with them. “The seer arguing with them was told to being Covid-positive. Another saint who had shaved his head earlier in the day was also taken away on the pretext that he had come in contact with the ‘infected’ man,” said Ram Vijay, a member.
The two men were sent back to the akhada less than a week later, Vijay added. For Covid patients and their contacts, two-week isolation is mandatory.
At the Sri Panchayati Niranjani Akhada, which is among the biggest akhadas, seers received their results either within a couple of hours or two days.
But some still reported problems. Jagat Bharti, a member, said he received a result at a camp organised by the akhada but got no results when he was tested outside. Mahant Ravinder Puri, secretary of this akhada, said one camp where 50 seers were tested here yielded no results despite a follow up. “Since we were worried about the results, we got all these 50 seers tested again at a private lab outside,” said Puri.
Harbeer Singh, additional mela officer, said, “I had nothing to do with the testing process and was mainly involved with coordinating with the akhadas”.
Haridwar SSP said that the SIT will visit the akhadas as part of their probe to know if the tests carried out on them were authentic.
“We are carrying out the probe in a planned way. The tests that were carried out have a trail that can be used to ascertain their authenticity. We are still probing if there was malafide in the testing process, or negligence, or they were bonafide. If crime was committed, it will be caught,” said Krishnaraj.
He said that the probe, which began with two private labs, will soon extend to all other labs. Shambhu Kumar Jha, the chief medical officer (CMO) of Haridwar, was unavailable for comment despite repeated phone calls, text messages and visits to his office.