Experts warn of another Covid surge as Uttarakhand rethinks Kanwar yatra ban

Health experts have said that allowing the annual ‘kanwar yatra’ can cause a dramatic surge in Covid-19 cases. The warning comes amid signs of a slowdown in virus spread and deliberations in the Uttarakhand government on whether the pandemic-led suspension imposed on the trek undertaken by Hindu devotees should be withdrawn.

The deliberations in the Uttarakhand government follow neighbouring Uttar Pradesh giving a green signal for Shiva devotees to pass through the state on their way to Haridwar and some other holy towns in Uttarakhand to collect water from the Ganges.

Sources said Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath has discussed the matter with his counterpart in Uttarakhand, Pushkar Singh Dhami, over the phone. The yatra is seen as politically significant in Uttar Pradesh in the backdrop of the upcoming Assembly polls.

Experts said that the annual pilgrimage, in which millions of men and women from several states travel by road to pilgrim spots in Uttarakhand and Bihar, could spark another resurgence of the virus which tore through several states earlier this year in its second devastating wave.

At a meeting earlier this week, Uttarakhand chief minister Dhami directed top officials to consult the neighbouring states before taking a decision on the matter.

Uttarakhand Congress president Pritam Singh said the government should not allow the yatra to be held. “We had a frightening experience in Kumbha… It can be symbolic also,” he said.

Shiva devotees, known as kanwariyas, usually walk hundreds of kilometres from several states—Delhi, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana–to Haridwar in Utarakhand to collect Ganga water and transport it to various temples. The 15-day yatra was cancelled last year due to the pandemic.

Anoop Nautiyal, founder of Dehradun-based Social Development for Communities Foundation, said the state government must bear in mind that standard operating procedures are impossible to implement for the kanwar yatra.

“The kanwar yatra will be minimum five times Kumbh, as 3 to 4 crore pilgrims are likely to come over the 15-day period, compared with 70 lakh pilgrims who recently held Kumbh in Haridwar,” he said, adding that if the state government relents in the face of pressure from larger states, the yatra could create hotspots for the third Covid-19 wave. Shekhar Pathak, who is associated with the research organisation ‘Pahar’, said the government should be cautious and weigh all risks involved in the yatra in long walks. “What is the logic of allowing the yatra while schooling and other vital activities remain barred,” he told ET.

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