Dehradun: The Uttarakhand government on Thursday postponed the Char Dham pilgrimage to four of the holiest Hindu shrines in the state, which was scheduled to start on May 14, as the second Covid-19 wave has pushed the daily infections above the 300,000-mark daily in the country over the last few days and overwhelmed hospitals.
“Even locals will not be allowed inside the shrines,” said chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat. “Only priests of the Char Dham shrines will perform rituals and worship. People will not be allowed to undertake the yatra [pilgrimage], given the sharp increase in Covid-19 cases.”
Officials said the portals of the shrines of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri, and Gangotri will remain open during the pilgrimage season.
Rawat made the announcement postponing the pilgrimage amid fears that it could turn out to be another super-spreader after four seers died of Covid-19 after participating in Mahakumbh in Uttarakhand’s Haridwar this month. Millions of devotees attended the mega fair from April 1, when the state had 2,236 active Covid-19 cases. The active cases rose to 45,383 on Wednesday.
Swami Avdheshanand Giri, Mahamandleshwar (head) of Juna Akhada, the largest of the 13 sects of seers, was on April 17 forced to declare the conclusion of the Mahakumbh amid the surge in the cases. The announcement came after a phone call from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who requested only symbolic participation in the fourth and last Shahi Snan (holy dip) in the Ganga at the mega fair on April 27.
Ravinath Raman, the chief executive officer of Char Dham Devasthanam Management Board, said a meeting was held over the pilgrimage on Thursday, where the decision to postpone the pilgrimage due to the Covid-19 situation was taken. “If later in the year, the situation improves, the yatra can be allowed with conditions and Covid curbs,” he said.
Political and religious gatherings have been cited among the reasons for the worst surge of Covid-19 infections that India faces. The second wave of the pandemic has pushed the death toll in the country close to 200,000 and starved hospitals of life-saving medical oxygen and beds.
Uttarakhand has been reporting the highest daily cases and Covid deaths for the last week or so. On Wednesday, the state reported 6,054 cases and 108 deaths, the highest in a day since March last year.
Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri, and Gangotri shrines are collectively called Char Dham and tens of thousands of pilgrims visit them annually. The pilgrimage begins from Yamunotri in the west. It then proceeds to Gangotri and finally to Kedarnath and Badrinath in the east.
The pilgrimage could not begin last year as per schedule on April 26 with the opening of portals of Yamunotri and Gangotri, the first two shrines that are opened after winter, because of the lockdown imposed to check the pandemic spread in March 2020.
The shrines were opened for local pilgrims on July 1 last year and for those from other states in the last week of that month. In September, the Uttarakhand government removed the condition of having negative Covid-19 reports for pilgrims to undertake the pilgrimage.
Officials said the portals of the Yamunotri shrine will be opened on May 14 and that of Gangotri on May 15 on the occasion of Akshay Tritiya. Portals of Kedarnath and Badrinath shrines will be opened on May 17 and May 18.
Anoop Nautiyal, the founder of Dehradun-based think tank Social Development for Communities who has been analysing Covid-19 data in the state, welcomed the decision to postpone the yatra. “Once the caseload, deaths, and positivity rate decline, we can consider restarting the yatra with suitable precautions. In the meantime, the government must provide financial support to the tourism and pilgrimage sector. Mass vaccination and urgent ramping up of public health infrastructure is the need of the hour,” he said.
Opposition Congress spokesman Garima Dasauni said the move to postpone the pilgrimage is a practical decision and they welcome it. “The government should also think of taxi operators, dhaba and hotel owners, shopkeepers and others involved in the yatra whose livelihoods will be affected. The government should provide them some monetary help.”
Manveer Singh Chauhan, the state media in charge of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party said the government is fully committed to fighting this pandemic with all possible resources. “With the present pandemic situation, the move was much needed. As far as the livelihood of those connected with the yatra is concerned, the government will soon take some relief measures for them.”
News Source: Hindustan Times