Lakhs of devotees thronged the beaches of Sagardwip in West Bengal on the auspicious occasion of Makar Sankranti in order to partake in the Gangasagar Mela where Hindu devotees immerse themselves where the Ganga meets the Bay of Bengal. The thousands of people have resulted in a rush where many flouted Covid-19 regulations, officials say.
Only devotees with a negative RT-PCR test result are being allowed. Covid-safe drones were arranged to spray holy water and sanitiser on devotees as they chanted but even with such precautions, many were violating the rule which restricted bathing to 50 at a time according to reports. Many were also maskless.
Though the Calcutta High Court has allowed the government to organise the mela, the court has also formed a two-member committee to monitor the arrangements. The panel will give instructions and oversee if the state government's affidavit on Covid rules is being complied with. The instructions have to be implemented by the Chief Secretary as per the direction of the division bench.
WIth 20,000 fresh Covid cases and a positivity rate of more than 30% reported in Bengal, health authorities have begun to express fears that the festival could turn into a Covid-19 super-spreader event. On Thursday, the state's positivity rate rose to 32.13% while it was 30.86% on Wednesday.
Lakhs more are expected to arrive on Saturday.
Despite criticism from the Opposition, the Mamata Banerjee government decided to go ahead with the festival and have announced multiple precautionary measures including setting up four Covid hospitals with a total capacity of 500 beds. Other than that, facilities with 1,910 beds are being set up between Outram Ghat and the Sagar island, besides five SARI (Severe Acute Respiratory Illness) isolation wards with a bed capacity of 125, and four 'safe homes' with 235 beds.
Seven quarantine centres, with a total of 435 beds have also been designated, as well as 6 dedicated cemeteries and 6 cremation grounds for disposal of any deceased person.
As Omicron cases rise in India, the Union and state governments are keen to avoid another lockdown, restricting gatherings instead.
In New Delhi, all bars, restaurants and private offices are shut and the capital is set to go into its second weekend curfew on Friday night. In the financial capital Mumbai, gatherings of more than four people are banned.