Updated: April 10, 2020 4:43:10 pm
On Wednesday, 12 Indonesians who arrived in Nanded on March 15 after attending the Tabligi Jamaat gathering in Delhi — linked to many coronavirus cases — finished quarantine with their COVID-19 test results negative. It was the end of just one excruciating wait for the administration in the district, among only nine in worst-hit Maharashtra with zero cases. Nanded has on its minds another gathering: of nearly 4,000 pilgrims from Punjab stranded at the historic Gurdwara Langar Saheb.
Resident Deputy Collector Dr Sachin Khalla said all the 3,755 pilgrims have been screened for symptoms of COVID-19 such as cold and sore throat over the past two days, and none is so far showing any. However, the tougher part is ensuring that the pilgrims don’t venture out of the premises of the gurdwara, one of the five most prominent Sikh shrines in the country that draws nearly 30 lakh visitors a year.
Section 144 has been imposed in the area, with three policemen guarding a major road leading to the gurdwara, and a barricade to stop vehicles.
The pilgrims arrived between March 1 and March 20 and have been unable to head back. They have moved into the gurdwara’s five ‘hostels’ — a total of 1,200 rooms, in different sizes.
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The administration is aware of the risks of having so many under one roof amidst the pandemic, with little means of ensuring social distancing. Nanded Superintendent of Police Vijay Kumar Magar says that after Section 144 was invoked, the first two days posed a major challenge as pilgrims kept heading out into the city.
“After that we held a meeting with religious heads and asked them to keep the pilgrims in their rooms and even serve food to them there instead of in the community kitchen,” says Magar.
But that is easier said than done. Bachendar Singh, a priest at the gurdwara, says their faith does not allow them to turn anyone away from a langar, including non-Sikhs. “The concept of a langar was never to restrict people. Langars are not constructed with gates. How do we even close?” he asks.
Every day, as people sit in rows to eat and the women make the meals of rice, roti, dal and sabzi, food is prepared for nearly four lakh people, to be sent throughout Nanded and its surrounding areas. The wheat, rice and dal supplies for the gurdwara are generally received in the form of donations twice a year from Punjab, while other things are purchased locally.
The stranded pilgrims say the only way to ensure their safety and that of others is to get them home. “If the government wants us to maintain social distance, they should make arrangements for us to return,” says Sukhwinder Kaur, who arrived at the gurdwara on March 18 with her husband and their daughter.
Kulwinder Singh, 35, is struggling to obtain a drug for his 58-year-old mother Jaswinder Kaur, who has breast cancer. They had left home in Kapurthala, Punjab, on March 20 with dose for five days, hoping to be back home by March 26. But then came the 21-day nationwide lockdown starting March 24. “The medical shop in the vicinity does not have the medicine. I have been looking everywhere,” says Kalwinder.
Amrik Singh, 47, says he paid Rs 60,000, against the usual rate of Rs 45,000, to book a private vehicle on March 29 to take his family of 10 back to Punjab. But their vehicle was stopped at Hingoli and returned to Nanded. According to him, some private vehicles are asking as much as Rs 1.25 lakh to take them home.
Head priest Baba Balwinder Singh says they have readied trucks and 10 other vehicles that can take the pilgrims back if clearances are given.
The Divisional Railway Manager, Upinder Singh, says he has received multiple requests to run a special train for the pilgrims, including from MP Pratap Chiklikar. “We are urging the Railway Minister to run a train between Nanded and Amritsar as, to travel by road to Punjab, permission will have to be granted by three states. I have written a letter to Home Minister Amit Shah as well,” says Chiklikar.
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However, authorities remain apprehensive about making an exception as it might lead to a flood of similar demands. Chiklihar says an estimated 4.5 crore people are stranded in different states away from their homes.
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