Kolkata: As dawn broke Friday, Ganga Sagar beach was packed with maskless pilgrims taking a dip in the Ganga on the occasion of Makar Sankranti. More than 3.2 lakh people had arrived at the site in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district for an annual pilgrimage amid a spike in Covid cases in the state.
P. Ulaganathan, district magistrate, South 24 Parganas, told ThePrint, “We have conducted 30,000-40,000 random Covid tests, and so far, there is only one positive patient on Sagar Island under isolation.”
“It has been a big challenge for us as the area isn’t very big. We added extra barricades to control the crowd and ensure that it keeps moving,” added Ulaganathan, who has been personally monitoring the pilgrimage and preparations for it on the ground over the past month.
On 11 January, the Calcutta High Court modified its earlier order that had greenlit the Ganga Sagar Mela, and added that only double-vaccinated pilgrims with a negative RT-PCR report up to 72 hours old would be allowed to visit Sagar Island.
It also appointed a two-member judicial panel to keep a tab on the pilgrimage, with the authority to recommend that the pilgrimage be stopped if Covid protocols were violated.
On being asked if the panel had expressed any qualms thus far, the district magistrate said, “The high court-appointed panel is on the ground with me. They are quite happy with the arrangements and how the mela is being conducted.”
The Ganga Sagar Mela is the second-largest religious congregation in India after Kumbh. Each year, pilgrims from all across the country make their way to Sagar Island, where the Ganga meets the Bay of Bengal. On the occasion of Makar Sankranti, where the Sun is worshipped as it enters a new phase, devotees take a dip where the river flows into the sea, and proceed to offer prayers at Kapil Muni’s ashram on the coast. This year’s pilgrimage will wrap up Sunday.
Last year, 30 lakh pilgrims arrived for the mela amid the pandemic. The state had then installed Covid testing facilities and screening camps to ensure only those who had a negative report from a Rapid Antigen Test were allowed to attend the festival.
‘There is no Covid’, ‘Some listen, some don’t’
It was 45-year-old Parvati Kumar’s first time at Ganga Sagar. ThePrint spoke to her when her mask was off, as she was on a video call. She reached for a mask in her bag before saying, “We are a group of 100 who have come from Bhopal. We are all double-vaccinated and did our Covid tests before coming here. We are following all protocols. Only those who are careless will be infected, but those who follow the rules can easily complete this yatra safely.”
Tirth Das, 52, who’d come from Uttar Pradesh, praised the arrangements made by the West Bengal government, and said, “There is no Covid where we come from. We got tested at the railway station.”
Pintu Sarkar, a civic volunteer who was on duty, said, “Today I am on the morning shift. It begins at 6 am and ends at 2 pm. The state government has put us up at the local school nearby. I have been urging people to wear their masks through a microphone. Some listen, some don’t. But there was no reason to call off the Ganga Sagar Mela.”
Positivity rate at 32.13% doesn’t deter Ganga Sagar Mela
At the transit camp in Kolkata, heavily guarded by police, devotees gathered in large groups to take a bus for the journey towards Ganga Sagar. Inside the camp, kiosks of the state health department, the police, and the Kolkata Municipal Corporation were ready to assist pilgrims.
But the crowd was dense, and full of sadhus without masks. With a Covid positivity rate of 32.13 per cent in West Bengal, the administration was pleading with pilgrims to get their RT-PCR tests done before boarding the buses.
At the jetty in South 24 Parganas, in the midst of banners welcoming pilgrims, many announcements in Bengali, Hindi and English advised everyone to adhere to the Covid protocols set by the high court. But social distancing went for a toss as pilgrims waited to board the ferry. And the masks came off after they were packed into the vessel.
As many as 10,000 police personnel and 5,000 civic volunteers have been posted to assist the pilgrims, but the crowd grew denser and harder to control as we approached the mela ground. Outside Kapil Muni’s ashram, a serpentine line of devotees was cramped behind barricades.
Asked where the RT-PCR tests were being conducted, a policeman said he wasn’t aware. This was while he was helping a pilgrim who had taken sick at a tea stall board an ambulance, unsure if it was a Covid case. The state has set up nine buffer zones to screen pilgrims.
At the mouth of the river, devotees gathered in groups to take a dip, masks off. Civic volunteers constantly made announcements, requesting everyone to wear masks, sanitise their hands and maintain social distancing.
The administration also for the first time introduced e-snan, where holy water is sprinkled on devotees with the help of a drone. Around 250 pilgrims opted for this Thursday, while the majority stuck to the tradition of taking a dip in the Ganga.
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)