Covid SOP crumbles before Kumbh numbers, Akhadas take own steps

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A day after the death of the head of the Maha Nirvani Akhada from Madhya Pradesh, who had arrived for the Kumbh and tested positive for the coronavirus, several akhadas at the Mela on Friday rushed to take precautionary steps.

A DAY after the death of the head of the Maha Nirvani Akhada from Madhya Pradesh, who had arrived for the Kumbh and tested positive for the coronavirus, several akhadas at the Mela on Friday rushed to take precautionary steps. The Niranjani Akhada and Taponidhi Shri Anand Panchayati Akhada announced symbolic participation at the next shahi snan on April 27, “with a minimum possible number of sadhus”. Both also urged their followers to leave and quarantine at their ashrams.

At least 59 saints have tested positive so far, including the president of the Akhil Bharatiya Akhada Parishad, apart from more than 200 pilgrims (of 1.54 lakh tested), even as officials fumble before the impossible task of keeping the virus out at a gathering that has seen crowds up to 32 lakh.

At 7.45 pm on April 13, the eve of the third shahi snan, for example, more than 400 people disembarked from the Jan Shatabdi from Delhi arriving at Platform No. 2. With the day shift ending of the three laboratories roped in by the state government to check for the mandatory RT-PCR negative tests, there was no medical staff around to ask for the same.

On Wednesday, IG, Mela, Sanjay Gunjyal said around 56,000 people on 9,786 vehicles had been returned from state borders because they were not carrying RT-PCR negative reports or e-registrations. However, as an official pointed out, “Passengers coming by vehicles are sent back, but how do we send back those who have reached by train?” So, Rapid Antigen Test camps have been set up at railway stations and state borders too for those not carrying RT-PCR reports, with more than 2,000 such tests being done daily since April 1.

Mela Officer Deepak Rawat said railway officials had been requested to ensure compliance of RT-PCR at the boarding stage, and the Railways had accordingly intimated the SOP to all those booking tickets for Haridwar. “Even after that if somebody arrives, can we send the train back?”

At Har Ki Pauri, one of the sites for the dip, Kartik Parchey (19) is among those deployed to hand out sanitisers to pilgrims. Only 50% accept it, he said. “Many say sanitisers make them impure after the dip.”

Officials manning barricades, including central forces and volunteers, say everyone is urged to visit the RAT camps, but only 1% agree. “People claim they have a negative RT-PCR report. When we ask them to show it, they say they left it at the hotel,” said an official.

Records show that less than 20 people underwent the RAT on April 12 and 14, the two shahi snan days. An official running an RAT on the procession route of the akhadas said, “When ordinary people are ignoring our requests, how do we approach a procession of Naga sadhus and ask them to get tested?”

With the positive reports and death resulting in a scare, Ravindra Puri, president of the Niranjani Akhada, whose senior member is hospitalised with Covid since April 12, said only a dozen sadhus from their camp will take the holy dip on the next shahi snan day and no procession taken out, as social distancing on such occasions is impossible. “I have asked all who arrived from other districts to leave. Entry of new outsiders has been prohibited… I do not want anyone to die here.”

However, Mahant Ravindra Puri of the Nirvani Akhada said there was no change in their plans of shahi snan as no one at their akhada had tested positive.

Haridwar Chief Medical Officer S K Jha said, “So far we were doing both RT-PCR and RATs. But from Saturday, only RT-PCR tests will be done at akhadas.” He also promised testing in hotels and of frontline workers.

However, even that will be difficult. Vijay Agarwal, who runs a hotel at Gau Ghat, admitted that while the government makes negative RT-PCR mandatory, he is taking bookings with negative RAT. “After all the antigen report is also being issued by a government-panelled agency,” he argued, while pointing out that his business is just 10% of the 2010 Kumbh’s.

Retired police officer Mahendra Singh Negi, who has been assigned to Kumbh given his experience of 2010, said managing social distancing was a joke “on any ordinary day of the Mela”.

Between April 1 and April 14, police challaned 2,641 people for not wearing masks and 2,342 for flouting social distancing norms. IG Gunjyal said they could hardly do more. “We have our limitations. If we try to challan people in a crowd and in a gathering of Naga sadhus, or try to stop people, it can have serious consequences in the form of a stampede.”

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