DEHRADUN: Major ghats of the River Ganga in Haridwar and Rishikesh wore a deserted look on the occasion of Makar Sankranti on Friday with a ban on ritual bathing in the river owing to a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Har ki Pairi Ghat in Haridwar and Triveni Ghat in Rishikesh, which generally receive lakhs of devotees from Uttarakhand and the neighbouring states on the auspicious occasion, were completely sealed even as police personnel stood guard to ensure that the ban was effective.
Patrolling and checking along Haridwar's borders were intensified so that people unaware of the ban did not enter the Har ki Pairi area for a bath, a police official in Haridwar said.
People proceeding for a holy dip in the Ganga due to lack of information about the ban were convinced and made to return from the borders, he said.
Haridwar District Magistrate Vinay Shankar Pandey and his Dehradun counterpart R Rajesh Kumar had announced a ban on ritual bathing in River Ganga on Makar Sankranti a few days ago to check the spread of the virus.
Though some crowd was seen on Subhash Ghat, a short distance away from Har ki Pairi, Superintendent of Police (City) Swatantra Kumar said they had arrived for immersing ashes of their deceased kin as the ghat is reserved for the purpose.
Blind faith of the thousands of pilgrims thronging to the city's Babu-Ghat (Steps leading to the river Ganges named after its builder Baboo Raj Chandra ) en-route to Sagar Island for the Gangasagar Mela, saw many of them discarding Covid safety protocol, turning virus containment a tough proposition for the state administration.
Many pilgrims said that taking a dip in the Hooghly river here in the shadow of the Babu-Ghat's Doric-Greek pavilion with massive Cornithian pillars, would kill the coronavirus while several others blindly claimed that no virus would be able to touch them because they are on a holy pilgrimage.
A sadhu, Sanyasi Sukanta Giri from Haridwar's Shambhu Panchayati Atal Akhara, who was seen without a mask said that though he has got both the vaccine shots (a must-to be allowed to proceed to Gangasagar) "chanting the `Gangasnan' (Ganges bathing) and `Mahamrtyunjaya' (conquest over death) mantras" would help keep him safe from the pandemic.
"I don't want to talk about it. There is no coronavirus at the moment and even if there is any it will not be able to infect me because I am doubly vaccinated and I chant the `Mahamrityunjaya mantra (prayer) everyday," Sukanta Giri told PTI.
"Hum to mast hai. Coronavirus hum ko chu nahi payega. Hum bindass hai. Hum Gangasnan ke liye aye hai. Corona kuch nahi kar payega humara (I am a fearless person and coronavirus will not be able to do anything to me because I have come here for the holy dip in Gangasagar)," HC Budhiraja, a resident of Ahmedabad, who has come with his old parents, Harshvardhan Budhiraja and Poonam, told this reporter.
Rajendra Pal of Rajasthan's Ajmer added that he firmly believed taking a dip in sea water at Sagar will "kill any form of bacteria or virus and ward off sins" .
"Hum to bhagyashali hai ke hum Gangasagar mein dubki lagane ko aa paye hai. Coronavirus bol ke kuch nahi hain, aur Gangasagar mein nahaney se sab bacteria, virus mar jata hai. Gangasagar ke pani mein sab paap, virus khatam hota hai. (I am lucky to have come here for the holy dip. If you get a chance to take the holy dip, all coronavirus and bacteria along with your sins will be washed away)," Pal said.
Many of sadhus and the pilgrims were also reluctant to take the RT-PCR tests which have been made mandatory by the Calcutta High Court to go to the Sagar Island for the annual congregation, a senior official of the health department said.
"It's like a test of our patience. They are reluctant and giving us funny excuses not to undertake the RT-PCR tests or vaccines. We have to literally fight with them to collect the swabs. At times we are taking help from policemen to explain that unless they are tested, they will not be able to proceed from this point (Babughat)," the doctor said.
Senior police officers of Kolkata Police also echoed similar difficulties while managing the pilgrims at Babughat where several tens of thousands of pilgrims are passing through.
"We are only allowing those who test negative in the RT-PCR and have double vaccination certificates . And we are administering the second dose to all those who do not have got it," another doctor said.
However, the queue outside such RT-PCR and vaccine camps became yet another example of violation of the Covid-19 protocol where the physical distancing has gone for a toss.
"Hum saath saath aaye hai aur saath saath hi rajenge. Corona hum ko nahi hoga agar hum apne logo ke saath rahenge. (We have come together and cannot leave each other. Coronavirus will not be able to cause any harm to us)," Gauri Chaturvedi, who was seen standing in the queue of a vaccination camp with her daughter-in-law said.
According to a senior police officer of Kolkata Police the crowd was far less comparing to other years, probably because of the curbs imposed by the state government due to the ongoing surge in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pilgrims from Babughat board vehicles arranged by the state government to take them to the Kakdwip from where they take boats and vessels to the Sagar Island.
A Calcutta High Court division bench comprising Chief Justice Prakash Shrivastava and Justice Kesong Doma Bhutia allowed the annual fair to take place from January 8 and 16, and ordered that the entire Sagar Island be declared a notified area.
The bench also constituted a two-member committee comprising former Justice Samapti Chatterjee and member secretary of the West Bengal Legal Services Authority to recommend the state government to ban the entry of pilgrims to the island in case of violation of safety norms.
The bench ordered that all pilgrims must be fully vaccinated and should test negative for COVID-19 in an RT-PCR test conducted within 72 hours before reaching the venue.(THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS)