Tracing the Nanded cluster trail
Apart from the pilgrims, the shrine also employs 1,100 people who work as labourers, masons, cooks and staff. Of these, 306 people have been screened for the virus and 32 tested positive.Updated: May 17, 2020 03:31 IST
In the span of four days, Hardeep Singh Kahlon’s life turned upside down.
The 38-year-old bus driver was hailed as a hero in his village in Punjab’s Shahid Bhagat Singh Nagar district when he ferried back 40-odd stranded Sikh pilgrims from Maharashtra’s Nanded town on April 29.
He was part of a fleet of 231 Punjab Roadways and Pepsu Road Transport Corporation (PRTC) buses that rode 3,500 kilometres over 50 hours and four states to bring 4,125 people from the Hazur Sahib Gurdwara, one of Sikh religion’s holiest shrines.
But in four days, the celebration turned into suspicion as hundreds of pilgrims across the state started testing positive for the coronavirus disease, or Covid-19. Local villagers started avoiding his family and Kahlon, along with two other drives who accompanied him on the bus, were whisked away to a quarantine centre where it was confirmed they had also contracted the disease.
As he remained shuttered from the world, a fog of rumours and allegations descended on his family and relatives. The drivers were accused of being carriers of the virus, helping passengers evade screening and allowing people other than pilgrims to enter the buses; politicians, local leaders and television channels discussed their role in Punjab’s largest Covid-19 cluster that accounts for two-thirds of the state’s 1,946 cases.
But Kahlon betrayed little bitterness as he walked out of the quarantine centre after testing negative for the virus on Saturday. He said the shower of messages he received and the news he read over the past two weeks made him feel disheartened because of the politics and vilification, but it didn’t change how proud he felt about being a part of the operation to rescue the pilgrims.
“It was our duty to bring our own people who were stranded and even though there was a risk to life, you can’t run away from a fight…I am very happy I am going to meet my family finally,” he said.
Based on interviews with 30-odd government officials, doctors, pilgrims, gurdwara management officers and pilgrims, HT recreated the circumstances that led to the rescue of 4,125 pilgrims across India in a fleet of buses and the unlikely emergence of the cluster across two states despite near-hourly surveillance by multiple officials.
Situated on the banks of the Godavari river, the Hazur Sahib gurdwara in Nanded is one of the five holy seats of Sikhism where Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th guru, was laid to rest on October 7, 1708.
The shrine comprises the main Sach-Khand (Realm of Truth) gurdwara and a second gurdwara, langar sahib, where a majority of the pilgrims stay. In all, the shrine powers the economy of Nanded town and forms the core of the cultural identity of the city of 550,000 people.
“People from all over the world come to Nanded because of the gurdwara. It is part of an identity, and we regret that this holy name has been tainted by the infection,” said Avinash Jondhale, a local activist.
Every year, in the weeks after Holi and Diwali, the crowd swells at the shrine. According to Baba Balwinder Singh, the granthi of the langar sahib gurdwara, the numbers easily exceed 200,000 on such days.
When the crush is too much, the staff often uses the amount of salt being consumed in the langar as the indication of the size of the crowd. “This time, for example, we used 70kg of salt in one batch of langar cooked, so you can imagine the crowd,” said Master Singh, who manages the shrine.
The pilgrims are housed in a sprawling complex of 13-floor apartments, flats and dormitories that can house upwards of 50,000 people, said Balwinder. The accommodation includes 12-bed dorm rooms with shared toilets, eight-bed rooms for large families, four-bed rooms and rooms with air conditioning – the last one in a special building for non-resident Indian pilgrims.
Apart from the pilgrims, the shrine also employs 1,100 people who work as labourers, masons, cooks and staff. Of these, 306 people have been screened for the virus and 32 tested positive. All the labourers and gurdwara staff are currently quarantined in the NRI building, which has been designated as a Covid care centre.
Every year, the pilgrims follow a pattern, explained Master Singh. They celebrate the Hola Mahalla fair at Punjab’s Anantpur Sahib shrine for a week – the important festival usually falls around the second week of March -- and then come to Nanded.
This year, too, pilgrims started pouring into Nanded from the second week of March, oblivious to the danger of the infection. At the time, India had seen around 100 Covid-19 cases and roughly 30 of them were from Maharashtra. Nanded was a green zone with zero infections.
Among the pilgrims was Daya Singh, a 57-year-old farmer from Sursingh village of Punjab’s Tarantaran district, accompanied 60 of his friends and family in a truck. Narinder Singh, a 60-year-old resident of Khemkaran village in Punjab’s Tarantaran district, came by himself. Gurwinder Singh, a 38-year-old soldier from Chajjal Wadi village in Amrisar district guided 10 members of his family for the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. All stayed in the complex at langar sahib.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown to arrest the spread of Covid-19 on March 25 and suspended public transport, most pilgrims had left for their home states but roughly 4,500 people were still in the gurdwara complex.
Of this, 4,125 people were from Punjab and the rest were from Jammu, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Haryana and Rajasthan. At least 200 of them continue to stay in the pilgrim quarters even now, said Master Singh.
Of the pilgrims, 332 were staying at the main gurdwara premises and the rest at Langar Sahib. Daya Singh, Narinder Singh and Gurwinder Singh were all stuck.
Pilgrims were quarantined to their rooms, making two trips daily to the langar that remained operational through the clock. The gurdwara management arranged for doctors to do daily checks of the pilgrims and started negotiating with the local government for the passage of the stranded pilgrims.
But negotiations were stalled quickly.
The gurdwara board approached the district administration, which got in touch with the state government. Simultaneously, the Punjab government wrote to the Maharashtra government for permissions. Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal also appealed to the government for special arrangements to evacuate the pilgrims.
“Two special trains were demanded for their passage, but permission was not given. Finally, the permission came on April 21-22 for the evacuation by road,” said a senior official from the Nanded district administration on condition of anonymity.
By then, many pilgrims had already grown restless. Daya Singh, for example, convinced some of his family to pool money in for a taxi.
“We were stopped at many places and somehow reached Tarantaran on April 15, after a week,” he said. Ordinarily, the journey should have taken three days. Daya Singh was one of 300 pilgrims who returned to Punjab that day – the first tranche of pilgrims to come back. Two days later, the rest of the 60-member group reached the village. None of them was tested on arrival, and they were instead sent to home quaratine.
Their return added a human face to the news headlines of stranded pilgrims, an emotive issue in a state with 16 million Sikhs. Within hours, chief minister Amarinder Singh and Harsimrat Kaur Badal had exchanged barbs with the ruling Congress and the opposition Shiromani Akali Dal and Bharatiya Janata Party blaming each other for the delay in evacuating the pilgrims.
Back in Nanded, with virus cases rising across India and especially in Maharashtra, anxiety was running high among the pilgrims and this prompted the second tranche of pilgrims to leave the shrine.
On April 13, Narinder Singh decided it was too dangerous to stay back in Nanded and arranged for a vehicle to take him back, along with 12 other pilgrims. His other motivation for going back: the harvest season had begun and he was already getting several calls a day from his family to come back and oversee the cutting of crop.
It took him nine days to return home, and they, too, were stopped at several barricades.
“Many a times we got only single meal as dhabas were closed. We paid Rs 1 lakh to the tempo for the journey,” said the 60-year-old man.
By the time Narinder Singh got back home – on April 22 – negotiations between the Punjab and Maharashtra government to send buses for evacuating the pilgrims were almost closed. There was only one sticking point: Should the buses come in one fleet or space out the operation over several days.
“We admitted to bear the cost of around Rs 1.25 crore for 100 buses needed for the journey and paid for the first fleet of 10 buses. But then the Punjab government sent the fleet of 79 buses and remaining pilgrims were taken back,” said Bhupinder Singh Manhas, president of the gurdwara board.
With the arrival of the buses on April 24, the third and most important leg of the pilgrim evacuation began. Gurwinder Singh and his family were among the passengers on the first few buses.
“We agreed to board the buses to reach Amritsar. I had Rs 15,000 in my pocket and some packed langar. When I first entered the bus, I saw worried faces of the other pilgrims, wearing face masks and chanting god’s name. No one in the bus was eager to talk to one another,” he said.
The soldier claimed no one in his family slept for the three days on the road. “The bus only stopped when people need to go washroom. We even got our langar, made by the gurdwaras on the way, inside our buses and we were not allowed to step out of the bus.”
They reached their home in Amritsar district late on April 27 but bad news was waiting for them. Five pilgrims in Tarantaran district’s Sursingh village – the native place of Daya Singh – had tested positive for the virus earlier that days, sounding an alarm throughout the state and forcing the Punjab government to screen all pilgrims.
By the next day, Daya Singh, Narinder Singh and Gurwinder Singh had all tested positive for the virus. As of Saturday, 1253 pilgrims have tested positive for the virus and one –56-year old Gurjant Singh from Ludhiana district – has died.
How did so many pilgrims get infected without the authorities finding out until it was too late? Despite a high-pitch political tussle between Punjab and Maharashtra governments and wild rumours flying about, medical experts and government officials agree that there is no one definite answer.
Instead, there are three theories.
The first is that the pilgrims contracted the virus during their month-long stay at the gurdwara. The Maharashtra government and the gurdwara management vehemently deny this. “Not a single person had any symptoms of virus till last day of the departure of the last batch on April 27. We were conducting regular check-ups as per the guidelines of the central government,” said Bumgai.
But Nanded municipal corporation health officer Suresh Singh Bisen confirmed to HT that the authorities conducted only thermal screening. Given that about 90% of the Covid-19 positive pilgrims are asymptomatic, it is possible they contracted the infection without any symptoms such as fever. “We did it continuously for five days. No complaint. We didn’t find anything,” Bisen said.
Moreover, the crowded dormitories and the langar may not have enforced social distancing, said some pilgrims.
“We used to cook langar together and serve it for the pilgrims in routine and social distancing was not followed properly because there was a word among us that as we are already locked up together in the gurudwara because of the lockdown, we were safe,” said a 52-year-old pilgrim from Ludhiana.
The second theory is that the pilgrims were infected during the journey.
The 79 buses came in two varieties – with 40 seats and 31 seats – but they were all airconditioned. The passengers sat close to each other, and the AC – which research has shown can be a carrier of the virus – was on the whole time.
The route crossed several red zones and at many places, Sikh volunteers organised ‘langars’. One such spot was Indore city, which has reported more than 2,200 cases.
“Our bus was stopped by the authorities and we were told that due to a surge in the coronavirus cases, entry into the city was not allowed. We eventually made our way to the langar, packed food and set off,” said Kahlon.
Some pilgrims also alleged that in a limited number of buses, outsiders were allowed to board. According to gurdwara management member, around 150-200 labourers had joined the pilgrims when they got to know that Center has allowed buses to evacuate them.
“The labourers joined the pilgrims and came back using vehicles arranged by the government. However, these labourers were not checked even using thermal scanners,” a 42-year old pilgrim from Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar district claimed.
The gurdwara management backs this theory. “Yes I agree, some problems happened during the journey, in Indore, Hanumangarh and Bhilwara, when outsiders boarded the bus,” said Balwinder Singh.
The third, and somewhat less plausible, theory is that some of the drivers had been unknowingly infected before they drove their buses down to Maharashtra. This theory has taken hold in Punjab in the past two weeks after a 45-year-old driver tested positive for the virus.
NK Aggarwal, the Fatehgarh Sahib civil surgeon, said the driver went to Nanded from Fatehgarh Sahib on April 24 and came back on April 28. He tested positive on May 1, but when authorities tested his family – his nephew and niece were also found positive.
“Because the viral load takes five to six days to return a positive test, we suspect that he may have been Covid positive before he went to Nanded. Moreover, he was in quarantine and hadn’t met his family, so their testing positive also makes us think in that direction,” said Aggarwal.
Maharashtra public works department minister and guardian minister of Nanded, Ashok Chavan, said the infection was spread through the drivers and cleaners of the buses. “These drivers and bus assistants, who travelled all the way from Punjab and halted at many hotspots in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Had gurdwara staff been infected earlier [as claimed by the Punjab authorities], the virus could have spread across the city much before the pilgrims were evacuated,” he said.
Despite the blame game and the human tragedy, there are clear lessons for governments trying to stop the spread of the virus. In both states, officials were stumped by the asymptomatic nature of the disease – just 35 of the 1,253 patients showed symptoms.
“Initially, we decided to isolate only those who have been showing symptoms. But such cases turned to be only 30 as most of the pilgrims tested positive are asymptomatic. Positive cases are being treated in civil hospitals,” said a senior health department functionary in Punjab.
Similar concerns were seen in Maharashtra. “Out of five containment zones in the district, three have the high and low risk contacts linking to drivers and workers from Gurudwara. We have traced 94 high risk and 414 low risk contacts with these positive patients,” said Balaji Shinde, Nanded district health officer.
But the largely asymptomatic nature of the cluster has also helped in mitigating the human costs. Nearly 1,200 patients were released on Friday and Saturday after government guidelines last week allowed asymptomatic patients to be released after 14 days without testing.
For 41-year-old Parwinder Singh, a co-driver of Kahlon, this means he can finally see his family after a month. “I have performed my duty and I am proud of it because the people who were stranded were our people. Now I can go home,” he said.
(with inputs from Gagandeep Jassowal)