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How not to ‘Kumbh’ amid Covid spike — this Gujarat town shows the way during Navratri

The town of Unjha is on a mission to break the Covid transmission chain. To that end, it has voluntarily closed an important temple & its spice market, the biggest in Asia.

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Unjha, Gujarat: Faith can both inspire and destroy. In stark contrast to the Kumbh Mela, which began in Uttarakhand on 1 April, where the gathering of sadhus and pilgrims taking a dip in the Ganges has made the event a Covid super spreader, is the Umiya Mataji temple in Unjha, Gujarat.

The temple, which is held in high regard by the Patidar Patel community of the state, decided on 13 April to close doors to worshippers for the rest of the month, to prevent the spread of Covid in the town.

The temple, which sees an annual footfall of 80 lakh and an average daily footfall of 20,000, draws a steady stream of worshippers during Navratri — an important religious event in the Hindu calendar. This year, Navratri started on 13 April (to be celebrated for the nine consecutive days). The temple decided to close down for physical darshan, to prevent the spread of Covid, so that “faith in God” doesn’t become a cause of death and illness.

Dilip Patel, joint secretary of the trust that manages the Umiya Mataji Mandir in Unjha, told ThePrint, “As leaders of the community, it is our responsibility to ensure people’s safety. The Umiya Mata temple annually witnesses a footfall of 60-80 lakh devotees from around the world. Patidar Patels from over 100 countries come here annually to seek the blessings of Umiya Mata. The Navratras have just started, and about 50,000 people come to the temple during this time. In addition to this we see a similar footfall on weekends and on full moon days.”

To ensure that the gathering at the temple doesn’t result in more people getting infected, the temple authorities decided to suspend physical visits. Devotees will, however, be able to virtually watch the Navaratri aarti live, he added.

The Umiya Mataji temple in Unjha draws about 50,000 devotees during the ongoing Navratri celebrations. On 13 April, the temple decided to close physical darshan for the rest of April, to ensure that the crowd does not result in a Covid outburst in the town | Praveen Jain | ThePrint

The Umiya Mataji temple is, however, not the only place that has been voluntarily closed down, to check the spread of Covid, in this town.

The Unjha Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC) is Asia’s biggest spice market where 800 businesses trade and 3,000 people, both those who work here and those who visit to trade, eat daily. The market was perceived as a possible Covid super spreader in town, and so the traders at Unjha APMC and the Unjha municipality decided that all shops and business be closed down till 21 April.

The traders association and the temple are helping daily wagers and the poor with ration and cooked food respectively, to ensure that the well-meant lockdown doesn’t put anyone in distress.

Meanwhile, residents have voluntarily decided to go out as little as possible.

No government has imposed these restrictions on them. Unjha is in self-imposed lock down, even as Mehsana district, which includes the town of Unjha, recorded 249 cases Thursday (15 April).

Also read: Govt ‘data’ on Covid cases, and ‘fresh start’ for virus at Kumbh Mela

Self-imposed restraint

A drive down the deserted lanes of the town is a reminder of what the country was like during the nationwide lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic last year. But here, no government forces the residents of this town to be in this state of restraint.

Unjha, a small Gujarat town, is located 80 kilometres north of the state capital of Gandhinagar, and has a population that’s a little over 57,000, according to the 2011 Census. It has decided to break the Covid transmission chain as cases climb around the country.

The initiative to close businesses came from the Unjha APMC traders, though the final decision was taken jointly by them and the municipality.

Shops selling essential commodities, such as medicines or milk, are the only ones open in Unjha during this period of self-imposed lockdown | Praveen Jain | ThePrint

“The reason is very simple … we want to break the [Covid] chain. Everyday we hear  reports of shortage of beds and medicines. We don’t want our community here to face this problem. A meeting was held on 13 April, and it was unanimously decided that all shops in the town will be closed down,” Vishnu Patel, secretary of Unjha APMC, told ThePrint.

Explaining the logic behind their decision, he said, “The APMC spice mandi witnesses a daily footfall of about 5,000-8,000 people. It could have been a possible super spreader and we don’t want that to happen. The market will reopen on 22 April. ”

The traders then approached the civic body with their decision, which was only too happy to support this example in responsibility that the town was setting.

“When the traders association came to us with a proposal to implement a week-long lockdown in the town, we saw merit in the decision and decided to permit the lockdown,” Rinkuben Patel, the head of the Unjha Nagarpalika, told ThePrint.

“In just two days since the lockdown started, we have seen a drop in the number of Covid cases being reported in the town,” she added, but refused to share any figures with ThePrint.

The lockdown on businesses isn’t the only way that this town has decided to check the spread of the virus. People have also decided to go out as little as possible.

Kantaben Patel, a Unjha resident who is whole-heartedly supporting, and following the lockdown | Praveen Jain | ThePrint
Kantaben Patel, a Unjha resident who is whole-heartedly supporting, and following the lockdown | Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Kantaben Patel, a 45-year-old resident of Unjha, had stepped out of her house for some essentials, when she met ThePrint’s journalists, outside a milk shop. “Members of the city have decided to impose a lockdown and we all agree with it. We are staying inside our houses voluntarily. We want to break the chain and stop the spread of the virus in our town,” she said.

A post office cleaning staff, she goes to work in the morning, to clean the place, before returning home and staying there. “I am ensuring that all my family members too adhere the lockdown,” she said.

Also read: Modi govt wants more Covid vaccines, but Moderna is ‘not keen’ & Pfizer has this ‘condition’

Traders step up to help those in distress

A decision like this couldn’t have been taken without some financial sacrifice. But the traders are trying to ensure that it doesn’t leave those with limited means in dire straits.

“Most traders had voluntarily agreed to the lockdown. We are paying our employees their usual daily wages. Those put in financial distress because of the closing down of the market, or facing shortage of food, are being provided ration supplies,” said Vishnu Patel.

One such beneficiary is Shantaben, who works as a sweeper in the mandi. “Since our salaries are meagre, we can not sustain under a week-long lockdown. My family sought monetary help from one of the association members. Instead, they provided us with ration for a week. With five mouths to feed at home, even that is a big help,” she told ThePrint.

“As of now nobody has complained about loss of business,” said Rinku Patel. “The traders association is helping those in need with ration and regular pay.”

The association has also funded treatment for the disease, she added. “They funded the setting up of a 50-bed facility, with oxygen supply, for Covid patients, in the local government hospital.”

The deserted Unjha town during its self-imposed lockdown | Praveen Jain | Theprint
The deserted Unjha town during its self-imposed lockdown | Praveen Jain | ThePrint

The temple too is helping ensure that the poor do not go without food.

“The temple has a community kitchen, which feeds about 12,000 people every month. Even though the temple is closed, as part of our charity activities, we have decided to run the kitchen every alternate day. Those in need can come and eat in the mandir,” said Dilip Patel.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: ‘Covid won’t affect sadhus’: At Kumbh, many shun masks & distancing, say faith will save them


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