Uttarakhand to review decision to stop Kanwar Yatra amid Covid-19
Uttarakhand on Thursday decided to review its decision to stop all Kanwar yatra devotees from entering the state this year, prompting experts to caution about a steep surge in Covid infections if safety protocols are violated.
The decision on the yatra, which sees millions of people travel through several states by foot to the holy town of Haridwar, came a day after Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath cleared the event and asked Uttarakhand to allow the procession.
On Tuesday, the state government had decided not to allow the yatra over fears of a third Covid wave and increasing cases of delta variant in the state. The last Kanwar yatra was held in 2019 and roughly 30 million pilgrims reached Haridwar, as per official records.
A senior official privy to the developments said chief minister Pushkar Dhami met senior officials on Thursday to discuss Kanwar yatra.
“It was decided that state government will first hold talks with other states from where Kanwariyas come on how to conduct the yatra amid fears of the third wave, how the millions of pilgrims would be tested and whether there should be a cap on the numbers this time. The final call [on how to allow the yatra]will be taken after talks in a day or two,” said the official quoted above.
Ashok Kumar, director-general of police (DGP) Uttarakhand, who was present in the meeting, said that Kanwar yatra was discussed in the meeting. “Various aspects of the yatra were discussed and pros and cons were weighed,” he said.
This is the first major administrative decision by Dhami, who took charge on July 4. His predecessor, Tirath Singh Rawat, resigned on July 2 amid controversy over his administration’s decision to allow the Mahakumbh in Haridwar and large-scale fraud in testing during the holy event.
Both Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh are ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party and are scheduled to go to the polls early next year.
On Tuesday, the state government had issued an order stating that Kanwar pilgrims from neighbouring states won’t be allowed to enter Haridwar.
Uttarakhand Police also held meeting with senior police officials of Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi, Rajasthan and Punjab. Kumar had told his counterparts to publicise the government order on the ban and ask pilgrims from their states not to come to Haridwar.
The state police had also decided to seal the borders of the state from July 22 to ensure Kanwariyas don’t enter Haridwar from Uttar Pradesh or Himachal Pradesh.
But on Wednesday, Uttar Pradesh allowed the yatra from July 25. Adityanth also asked UP officials to coordinate to Uttarakhand administration and resolve any lingering problems.
The fortnight-long Kanwar yatra is an annual pilgrimage of Shiva devotees -- known as Kanwariyas -- to Haridwar, Gaumukh and Gangotri in Uttarakhand to fetch the water of the Ganga and carry it back to local temples. Devotees come from Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab, Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh to Uttarakhand.
The yatra was cancelled last year due to Covid and is usually held from July 23 to August 6.
Uttarakhand government received sharp criticism from experts and the judiciary over its decision to allow full-scale organisation of the Mahakumbh, which saw 9.1 million people participate in violation of Covid norms and distancing guidelines. Roughly six million of these was in April at the height of the second wave and officials in many other north Indian states traced local infection surges to Kumbh returnees. The administration is probing if 100,000 rapid antigen tests at the event were faked.
On June 28, the Uttarakhand high court also lashed out at the state government for allowing the Char Dham yatra and stayed its cabinet decision in this regard.
Dr DD Choudhary, senior member of the Indian Medical Association (IMA), Uttarakhand said allowing Kanwar Yatra at this juncture will be a disaster. “The Kanwar yatra has the potential to spread the third wave like wildfire. It just needs few infected Kanwars to spread the Delta plus variant, which has also been detected in Uttarakhand now,” the doctor said.
Rajesh Shivpuri, Garhwal-based political observer, said allowing millions of pilgrims when the country is readying to battle the third wave can be dangerous. “Every aspect should be considered before allowing Kanwar pilgrimage. It won’t be easy to manage Kanwariyas even if Kanwar yatra specific SoP is issued and restrictions are put in place,” he said.
Suryakant Dhasmana, senior vice president of Uttarakhand Congress, criticised the state government’s U-turn. “Everyone knows what happened in Mahakumbh, what mess they have left behind, and how they endangered the lives of millions of people through fake Covid tests. During Kanwar yatra, which is mostly unorganised, with people come from different states, how can they manage such huge numbers at a time when they should be readying for third wave?” he asked.
However, traders in Haridwar welcomed the decision. “All religious, festive baths and pilgrimages are being held in UP, then why not in our Uttarakhand. Right now, the Covid wave has come down sharply and the state is reporting few daily cases. There is no rationale in keeping the ban on the yatra,” said Mahanagar Vyapar Mandal Haridwar district president Sunil Sethi.
(With inputs from Sandeep Rawat from Haridwar)