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Last week, as India grapples with a devastating second wave of the coronavirus, millions of worshipers took to the banks of the Ganges in the northern city of Haridwar to take a dip in the water.
Hindus believe that the river is holy and immersing in it will cleanse them from their sins and bring them salvation.
But the state government of Uttarakhand, where Haridwar is located, faces stiff criticism for allowing the Kumbh Mela festival to take place amid a sharply deteriorating Covid image. India on Thursday reported more than 200,000 cases of Covid for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
An influential Hindu congregation has decided to withdraw from the massive festival. “The Kumbh Mela is finished for us”, Ravindra Puri, secretary of the Niranjani Akhada or of the congregation was quoted as saying in local media.
The decision came a day after Swami Kapil Dev, the leader of another prominent congregation, died after being diagnosed with Covid-19.
It is not known how many Kumbh Mela worshipers have tested positive since the first day of swimming on March 11. But Haridwar’s chief medical officer Dr SK Jha said more than 1,600 cases were confirmed among worshipers between April 10 and April 14.
But there are fears that the numbers are even higher and that many of those who have returned home have taken the disease with them across the country.
India has so far confirmed more than 14 million cases and 174,000 deaths from the virus. There had been a sharp drop in the number of cases in January and February, but with a further rise in cases and deaths, hospitals across the country are reporting a shortage of beds, oxygen cylinders and medicine.
The rise in the number of cases has not deterred people from attending the Kumbh Mela. Ujwal Puri, a 34-year-old businessman, arrived in Haridwar on March 9 armed with bottles of disinfectant, masks and vitamins.
Mr Puri expected stringent Covid security checks. But he told the BBC he faced no checks at the airport or Haridwar. One of his festival photographs shows crowds on the banks, waiting to take a dip on one of the nights. A lot of people don’t wear a mask or pull it up to the chin.
“There was no social distancing,” Mr. Puri said. “People were seated cheek by jowl for the holy evening prayers.”
He stayed at the festival for three days, he said, and took off his mask in public “just once to take a selfie with psychics.” “I left everything to God,” he said.
When he returned to Mumbai, Mr Puri locked himself in a room, he said, and got tested. “I live with my parents so I took all the care I could.”
But not everyone will even have taken these steps. There have been warnings that the Kumbh Mela could have functioned as a super-spreader event.
“The Kumbh should have been postponed,” historian Gopal Bhardwaj said. “Kumbh is supposed to bring peace to the inner self. How do you find inner peace if the loved one is infected with Covid?”
Others disagree. Raghavendra Das, a saint who is at Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, said: “Aren’t election rallies a very common occurrence? Why are liquor stores open? Aren’t they spreading the coronavirus? “
This will hardly reassure those who live in Haridwar and fear that the influx of pilgrims may put them at risk of contracting the virus.
“These pilgrims are going home in a day or two. But who knows what they left behind, ”said Mithilesh Sinha, a resident of Haridwar.
Fears of an increased risk of Covid prompted Sachdanand Dabral, another resident, to petition the court last year, asking how the state was prepared in the event of a Covid surge. Mr Dabral blamed Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat for the increase in cases, for allowing people to enter the state unchecked. The BBC could not reach Mr. Rawat for comment.
Mr Dabral’s lawyer, Shiv Bhatt, was part of an official court appointed committee that visited Haridwar in March to take stock of preparations for the Kumbh Mela. Mr Bhatt said hospitals, including a designated Covid care center, lacked basic equipment.
“The toilets and rooms were in poor condition. There were no bins or garbage cans. The elevator was not working,” he said.
But Mr Jha said all issues raised in the commission’s report have since been resolved. And worshipers continue to crowd the banks, often without masks and nearby, even as officials struggle to enforce Covid safety rules during the festival.
Sandeep Shinde, a Mumbai-based painter, said he enjoyed his Kumbh Mela experience earlier this month. Seated in a large room shared by about 10 devotees, Mr. Shinde slept on a mattress on the floor.
“Coming here and seeing people taking a holy dive was wonderful. I didn’t hear anyone around me talking about corona. No one was talking about the virus,” he said.