Updated: March 12, 2021 8:02:21 am
AT 3.30 AM, a clipped voice read out the instructions on the public address system: “Shahi snaan shuru ho chuki hai, kripya apne nazdiki ghat ki taraf jaaye (the royal bath has begun, kindly proceed towards the nearest ghat).”
An hour later, the polite invite gave way to a mild rebuke. “Kripya bar bar dubki na lagaye, teen dubki ek snaan (kindly do not take multiple dips, only three dips per bath)”.
As the clock ticked, the exasperation in the voice grew, as hordes of devotees streamed out of the lanes and bylanes housing hotels and dharamshalas.
“Bahuton ne mask nahi pehna. Kripya apni aur doosron ki suraksha ke liye mask zaroor pehene. Aur snan ho jaane ke baad ghat khali kar de (Many are not wearing masks. Please wear masks for your safety and the safety of others. Please leave the ghat after your bath),” it said.
The event, spread over four districts of Uttarakhand with Haridwar as the focal point, registered a footfall of over 28 lakh between Wednesday midnight and Thursday evening, mela adhikari (in-charge) Deepak Rawat told The Indian Express.
During the day, the mela administration also had to manage a high-profile visit, as new Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat visited the temple town, showered flower petals on devotees and set foot in Har Ki Pauri, the most famous ghat on the banks of river Ganga.
Between 10 am and 6.30 pm, as the Har ki Pauri ghat was made available to members, naga sadhus of the 13 akharas, including the Kinnar akhara which has transgender members, took turns in taking dips, leading processions as they arrived one after another. Flower petals were showered on devotees from a helicopter in the afternoon.
While negative RT-PCR test reports were a mandatory requirement for people entering Haridwar, authorities resorted to random checking, admitting that everyone could not be checked as the queue of waiting vehicles stretched into kilometres.
But there were some whose test reports were, indeed, checked. “The officials checked the reports of everyone in our bus and only then were we allowed to enter,” said Chandrabhan Singh, a school teacher from Gwalior, who reached Haridwar on Wednesday as part of a team of 270 devotees from the region.
Roopbhan, a security guard supervisor from Bareilly, was among those who undertook the entire journey on foot. “This is a matter of faith for my family. The journey was testing, but that is the whole point of the pilgrimage,” he said, resting under a tree before embarking on the nearly 250-km-long return journey.
Surjit Singh Panwar, Additional SP (Kumbh), said this time, a large number of devotees had turned up from western Uttar Pradesh as many of them had to give the Kanwar Yatra a miss due to the pandemic last year.
About 5,000 security personnel, including the Border Security Force, have been pressed into service.
As part of the precautionary measures, the mela authorities could be seen putting extra emphasis on cleanliness, with sanitation workers sweeping and mopping the ghat areas round-the-clock. Also, one wash basin has been installed for every 10 mobile toilets while 150 changing rooms for women have been set up. About 50 people, carrying hand sanitisers in large drums, have also been roped in.
“We plan to increase the number of changing rooms to 1,500 by next month when two more shahi snaans are scheduled to be held. One among the 118 ghats has been earmarked exclusively for women,” said Rawat, who served as the district magistrate of Haridwar between 2017 and 2019, before taking over as the mela in-charge.
He said the entire Kumbh area has been divided into 25 sectors for efficient management. He added that the administration was working on enhancing real-time surveillance; currently, there aren’t enough CCTV cameras to monitor the crowd remotely.
“The mechanism will be put in place by April with the installation of over 315 high-resolution cameras. While we started making preparations in 2019 itself, March 2020 forced us to revise the strategy. The biggest challenge so far has been crowd management. While there should not be any reason to worry, people should also not start thinking that the virus has vanished. We are trying to strike that balance,” he said.
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