The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued notice to the Uttar Pradesh government over its decision to allow the Kanwar Yatra from next week despite the COVID-19 threat.
The court, which took up the matter suo motu, said citizens were “perplexed” by the the yatra being permitted at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and medical experts have warned against large gatherings and urged people to maintain social distancing.
A notice has also been issued to the centre and the Uttarakhand government, which has cancelled the yatra in its territories. The next hearing is set for Friday.
“We read something disturbing in The Indian Express today that Uttar Pradesh has chosen to continue with the Kanwar Yatra while Uttarakhand, with hindsight of experience, has said there will be no yatra,” a two-judge bench of Justices RF Nariman and BR Gavai said.
“We wish to know the stand of the respective governments. The citizens of India are completely perplexed. They do not know what is going on. And all this as the PM, when asked about the third wave of Covid, said we cannot compromise even one bit,” the court added.
“We are issuing notice to the centre, UP and Uttarakhand… and because the yatra is to leave from July 25, we want them to file early responses and the matter will be heard on Friday.”
On Tuesday, the UP government said the yatra could take place from July 25 with a “minimum number of people”, and with “strict implementation of COVID-19 protocol”. Negative RT-PCR tests could be made compulsory, if required, a state official was quoted by news agency PTI.
Hours later, the Uttarakhand government went the other way, and cancelled the yatra in its territories ; Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami said “even the gods will not want people to die” as he announced his decision.
“We… have discussed this a lot; spoke to authorities and officials in neighbouring states… conclusion was that… we don’t want to turn Haridwar into a centre of the pandemic,” he said.
This was a day after the Indian Medical Association’s state chapter wrote to the Chief Minister.
The IMA reminded him that failure to follow Covid protocols had triggered the devastating second wave of infections and deaths, and that similar laxity in adhering to the rules – which has already been spotted in recent images and videos from hill stations – could lead to greater disaster.
The Uttarakhand government faced massive criticism earlier this year over its insistence on holding the Maha Kumbh , which resulted in a spike in COVID-19 cases, and reports that over one lakh fake tests (both RT-PCR and rapid antigen) had been conducted.
Yesterday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing the chief ministers of the eight northeastern states, came down strongly on recent images – from hill stations and city markets – of large crowds without face masks and zero social distancing.
“… today I will say very emphatically that it is not okay to have huge crowds in hill stations and markets without wearing masks,” Prime Minister Modi said.
Every year, an estimated 30 million Kanwariyas (devotees of Lord Shiva) from various northern states travel on foot or by other means to collect water from River Ganga at Haridwar to offer at Shiva temples in their areas.
The fortnight-long yatra, which begins with the onset of the month of Shravan, around July 25, and goes on till the first week of August, sees Kanwariyas from Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Delhi, and Himachal Pradesh gathering in Haridwar.
Medical experts and the centre have repeatedly warned the public against large gatherings – for any purpose – as the country scrambles to ward off, or minimise, the impact of a third wave of COVID-19 infections.