Chandigarh: The spurt of Covid-19 infections among Nanded pilgrims who have returned to Punjab has pitched local Congress leaders against their counterparts in Maharashtra.
The Congress is part of the government in both states — with an independent administration led by Amarinder Singh in Punjab, and as part of a coalition with the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra.
In a statement issued Monday evening, Punjab cabinet minister Razia Sultana questioned Maharashtra minister Ashok Chavan’s remark that the pilgrims could not have contracted the infection in Nanded, which is home to Gurdwara Hazur Sahib.
In a video message issued Saturday, former Maharashtra chief minister Chavan had claimed that the Nanded pilgrims may have been infected by the crew of the buses Punjab sent to pick them up.
Sultana has described Chavan’s statement as “factually incorrect”, saying the first lot of pilgrims that returned to Punjab had been ferried in vehicles hired in Nanded, either privately or by the gurdwara management.
The first batch of 31 vehicles that brought 860 pilgrims to Punjab, she added, were all registered in Maharashtra, with a crew from Maharashtra as well.
The Punjab government, led by Chief Minister Singh, has been at pains to deny allegations (including from opposition Shiromani Akali Dal) that the pilgrims may have caught the infection during the journey. In a statement issued Saturday, Singh pointed to the diagnosis of Covid-19 among staffers at the gurdwara to claim the source of infection was in Nanded.
Stuck inside shrine for over a month
Over 3,700 pilgrims from Punjab were present at the Hazur Sahib Gurudwara in Nanded when the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown kicked in 25 March, which virtually suspended inter-state travel but for essentials.
The pilgrims stayed on the premises for over a month until the central government, in the last week of April, allowed their travel back home. Subsequently, the Punjab government as well as the gurdwara management both made arrangements for their transportation.
During their stay at the gurdwara, the pilgrims had been screened for coronavirus. However, when they were tested for Covid-19 after their return to Punjab last week (the first batch arrived on the weekend of 25-26 April), hundreds were found to be infected.
In the past four days, Punjab’s coronavirus cases have shot up to 1,232, of which nearly 790 — 64 per cent — are Nanded pilgrims.
A spurt has also been witnessed in Nanded, which had only three coronavirus cases until last week. As of Monday, the district’s total stood at 34, of whom 31 are either sewadaars of the gurdwara or drivers involved in ferrying the pilgrims.
A fresh angle
Closer home, the SAD has escalated its attack on the state’s Congress administration for what it describes as “mismanagement” of the pilgrims’ journey back to Punjab. The party has also criticised the government for quarantining them in shabby conditions.
In a video statement issued Monday, Union minister and SAD MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal said the Punjab government had “first messed up the entire operation of bringing back the pilgrims” and then put them in quarantine facilities where they were not even getting basic amenities like drinking water.
Meanwhile, Delhi SAD leader Manjinder Singh Sirsa has alleged a fresh angle to the Nanded saga, suggesting that the infection may have come from migrant labourers who accompanied the pilgrims from Maharashtra to Punjab.
Issuing a video statement Monday, Sirsa said more than 200 migrant labourers had travelled back with the pilgrims. “These Punjabi migrant labourers are from places near Nanded and had gathered at the gurdwara when they came to know that buses will be going to Punjab,” he added. “These migrant labourers could have been the source of infection to the pilgrims.”