The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued notice to the Uttar Pradesh government over its decision to allow the Kanwar Yatra from next week despite the threat of a spike in COVID-19 cases.
The court, which took up the matter suo motu, said citizens were “perplexed” by the the yatra being permitted at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and medical experts have warned against large gatherings, and urged people to follow social distancing and other Covid protocols.
A notice has also been issued to the centre and the Uttarakhand government, which has cancelled the yatra in its districts. The next hearing is set for Friday.
“We read something disturbing in The Indian Express today… that Uttar Pradesh has chosen to continue with the Kanwar Yatra while Uttarakhand, with hindsight of experience, has said there will be no yatra,” a two-judge bench of Justices RF Nariman and BR Gavai said.
“We wish to know the stand of the respective governments. The citizens of India are completely perplexed. They do not know what is going on. And all this as the PM, when asked about the third wave of Covid, said we cannot compromise even one bit,” the court added.
“We are issuing notice to the centre, UP and Uttarakhand… and because the yatra is to leave from July 25, we want them to file early responses and the matter will be heard on Friday.”
The yatra was scrapped last year because of the pandemic and lockdown.
On Tuesday, the UP government said the yatra could take place from July 25 with a “minimum number of people”, and with “strict implementation of COVID-19 protocol”. Negative RT-PCR tests could be made compulsory, if required, a state official was quoted by news agency PTI.
Hours later, Uttarakhand went the other way, and cancelled the yatra; Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami said “even the gods will not want people to die” as he announced his decision.
“We… have discussed this a lot; spoke to authorities and officials in neighbouring states… conclusion was that… we don’t want to turn Haridwar into a centre of the pandemic,” he said.
This was a day after the Indian Medical Association’s state chapter wrote to the Chief Minister, and reminded him that failure to follow rules had triggered the devastating second wave.
The Uttarakhand government faced massive criticism earlier this year over its insistence on holding the Maha Kumbh in Haridwar, which experts say contributed to a spike in COVID-19 cases; fewer than 300 cases were reported on April 1, but that jumped to over 5,500 by mid-May.
The outrage led to an appeal by the Prime Minister mid-way through the (shortened) one-month festival. PM Modi asked that the mela “should now only be symbolic amid the coronavirus crisis”.
Last month it emerged that over one lakh fake Covid tests had reportedly been conducted ahead of the Kumbh Mela. Negative test results were required of participating devotees, per a High Court order.
Yesterday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a strong warning to people to follow Covid protocols in order to ward off, or at least minimise, the impact of a third wave.
“… we bring it (the virus) with us when we disobey the rules. Experts are warning us repeatedly that careless behaviour – like overcrowding – will lead to an increase in Covid cases,” he said.
The PM’s warning came after recent images from hill stations showed large crowds violating Covid protocols and gathering in public spaces and shopping centres.
Every year, an estimated 30 million Kanwariyas (devotees of Lord Shiva) from various northern states gather to collect water from the Ganga at Haridwar to offer to Shiva temples in their areas.
The fortnight-long yatra sees devotees from UP, Haryana, Punjab, Delhi, and Himachal Pradesh.
With input from PTI