Amid fears of a possible third wave of Covid-19, the Uttarakhand government on Tuesday suspended the kanwar yatra even as neighbouring Uttar Pradesh is pressing ahead with the annual ritual that sees a heavy movement of pilgrims across states in the northern belt.
At a meeting on Tuesday with top officials of the administration and police, Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami discussed apprehensions of a possible third wave of Covid-19, the recent detection of the Delta Plus variant in the state, and the experience of other countries that have witnessed a resurgence of Covid cases. Sources said the government also sought the view of experts before arriving at the decision to cancel the yatra.
Speaking to reporters, Dhami said, “We decided to cancel the yatra, according topmost priority to human life… A lot of discussions were held on the issue over the last few days. Our officials held talks with neighbouring states. The outcome of this exercise is that in view of the pandemic and with a new variant being detected in the state, we do not want Haridwar to be the centre of the pandemic… People’s lives are our priority. We can’t play with that… we won’t take any chances.”
Uttarakhand’s decision to suspend the yatra comes even as the administration in UP has started preparing for the yatra — “with restrictions”.
UP Additional Director General (ADG) Law and Order, Prashant Kumar, said that this year, the yatra will be held from July 25 to August 6.
Officials said that in 2019, the last time the yatra was organised, nearly 3.5 crore devotees (kanwariyas) had visited Haridwar while over 2-3 crore people had visited pilgrimage spots in Western UP.
Uttarakhand’s decision to cancel the kanwar yatra comes after the state was criticised for hosting over 36 lakh people for the Kumbh Mela, just before the second Covid wave. UP's decision to go ahead with the yatra will be watched closely amid concerns regarding a third wave.
As part of the yatra, kanwariyas trek up to or drive to ghats of the Ganga, and fill pitchers with water from the river before making the journey back to their towns and villages. While much of the traffic is usually headed to Haridwar, pilgrims also go to the UP districts of Muzaffarnagar, Baghpat, Meerut, Ghaziabad, Bulandshahr, Hapur, Amroha, Shamli, Saharanpur, Agra, Aligarh, Bareilly, Kheri, Barabanki, Ayodhya, Varanasi, Basti, Sant Kabir Nagar, Gorakhpur, Jhansi, Bhadohi, Mau, Sitapur, Mirzapur and Lucknow.
Talking to The Indian Express on the arrangements for the yatra this year, UP ADG Kumar said Covid protocol will be followed, with the administration setting up ‘Covid care booths’ with masks, sanitisers, testing kits, pulse oximeters and thermometers on the yatra routes. State government officials said a negative RT-PCR test report will be made compulsory for the yatra, if required.
“It is expected that this year there will be lesser crowd as appeals are being sent out to this effect,” Kumar said.
In Dehradun, when asked about UP’s decision to go ahead with the yatra, Dhami reiterated the Uttarakhand government’s decision to not allow the yatra. The yatra was suspended last year too.
After his recent visit to Delhi, during which Dhami discussed the issue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, he said the “kanwar yatra is a matter of shraddha (reverence) and aastha (faith)”, and that “God would not like anyone to die”.
The previous Uttarakhand government led by Tirath Singh Rawat had decided to cancel the yatra for this year. However, after Dhami assumed the top post, he said his government was yet to take a final call on the yatra.
The decision to finally suspend the yatra comes two months after the Rawat government came in for severe criticism for hosting over 36 lakh people for the Kumbh Mela, just before the second Covid wave.
The Uttarakhand state branch of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) too had written to Dhami, seeking the cancellation of the yatra.