Outrage as millions descend on Ganges despite pandemic

Infections rising sharply in India as criticism of the government mounts for allowing mass religious gathering

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Millions of pilgrims  plunged into the Ganges on Wednesday, sparking outrage at the government for allowing the massive Kumbh festival to go ahead while India is being hit by a second wave of coronavirus.

The world's largest religious gathering attracts millions of pilgrims from across the country who throng the northern city of Haridwar.

About 1.4 million pilgrims jostled for space on the banks of the river in a repeat of scenes witnessed on Monday, when 3.1 million devotees gathered to perform a bathing ritual in the city considered holy by Hindus.

Thousands gather by India's Ganges river for Kumbh Mela

Thousands gather by India's Ganges river for Kumbh Mela

Most pilgrims did not wear masks or observe social distancing measures introduced during the year-long fight against Covid-19.

The sight of thousands of naked and dreadlocked Hindu ascetics splashing in the fast-flowing water sparked fears among experts and ordinary citizens, who are accusing the government of glossing over an event that could fuel infection rates.

India has been hit hard by the pandemic and recently overtook Brazil for having the second-highest number of confirmed cases.

Social media users lashed out at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which also rules Uttarakhand state where the festival took place, for allowing the mammoth gathering despite warnings by federal officials that it could potentially become a “super-spreader” event.

"It is utterly nonsense and criminal to allow such a huge gathering during a pandemic. Who is responsible for the fallout?,” one Twitter user wrote.

Uttarakhand has already reported a sharp rise in new infections, with the state reporting a record 2,000 cases on Wednesday. More than 500 cases were detected in Haridwar city.

Nearly 1,090 people tested positive for Covid-19 at the festival on April 13.

Experts say the event could have a nationwide impact as pilgrims who converged in the city could take the virus back to small towns and villages across the country.

The Health Ministry on Wednesday said nearly 185,000 infections were recorded in the country, taking the total number of cases reported in India to 13.8 million.

More than 170,000 people have died, over 1,000 of them on Tuesday.

Several Indian states have imposed complete lockdowns, night curfews and other restrictions to curb transmission of Covid-19.

Many hospitals have reached breaking point and some crematoriums and morgues have run out of space.

But the local government defended the event, publishing full-page newspaper advertisements inviting the faithful to take part in the spiritual experience.

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat, who recovered from coronavirus last month, brushed aside the criticism and claimed that “faith was stronger than fear”.

“Nobody will be stopped in the name of Covid-19 as we are sure that faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus,” Mr Rawat said.

The state government made negative Covid-19 test certificates mandatory for the pilgrimage, but local media reported that most of the pilgrims broke the requirement.

Health officials said more than 300 out of 20,000 people were found to be infected during random testing of pilgrims in the area.

"We agree it is difficult to maintain social distancing here but we are following all the standard procedures and encouraging devotees to wear masks," Harbeer Singh, a member of the Kumbh organising committee told The National.

The event occurs every 12 years for about four months.

Hindus believe taking a dip in the Ganges during the festival cleanses them of their sins and brings an end to the cycle of life and death.

This year the government cut short the event to 30 days because of the pandemic, but jubilant crowds converged in the city.

India's railways even organised 25 special trains linking the city to various locations to enable the pilgrimage, while thousands of buses and private cars take the pilgrims to a 600-hectare festival area that is guarded by about 20,000 policemen.

People discussing the festival on social media drew parallels between the government’s facilitation of the Hindu festival and the incrimination of hundreds of Muslims after they were stranded at a complex in New Delhi last March.

Several high-ranking members of Mr Modi’s party falsely claimed that the Tablighi Jamaat missionaries were attempting to spread the virus as part of a conspiracy to harm the country.

Some in the right-wing Hindu leadership described the stranded Muslims as “human bombs”.

The government has been accused of treating Hindu and Muslim religious gatherings differently.

“There is a kind of duplicity with regards to Tablighi Jamaat,” said Dr Shah Alam, a professor of orthopaedics in New Delhi and a commentator on Muslim affairs.

“Kumbh is a poor public health policy decision and it will affect the population at large as the second wave is tenacious and brutal,” Dr Alam said.