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Even as Uttarakhand Reels From Sharp Spike in COVID Cases, Char Dham Yatra To Go Ahead

Last week, the Uttarakhand high court had observed that the pilgrimage cannot be allowed to turn into another Kumbh Mela.

New Delhi: Despite the 1800% increase in Uttarkhand’s active COVID-19 cases in the period coinciding with the Kumbh Mela, the state government has given its green signal to hold the annual Char Dham yatra from May 14.

The state government has agreed to allow the pilgrimage to four shrines – Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath, and Badrinath – despite criticism that the Kumbh Mela had allowed the virus to spread in the state. On March 31, the state only had 1,863 active cases. By April 27, this number shot up to 43,032.

The fresh standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the four day Char Dham yatra, which is yet to be issued by the government, are expected to include the requirement of a negative RT-PCR test, online registration for e-passes, banning pilgrims from entering the sanctum sanctorum and banning hand-to-surface contact. Wearing masks will be compulsory and offerings such as flowers or sweets will not be allowed.

“We have made the negative RT-PCR report mandatory for Char Dham Yatra to ensure that the infection does not spread. Yatra is a matter of faith and we are committed to provide every facility our pilgrims from all over the world, ” the state’s tourism minister Satpal Maharaj told the New Indian Express.

In 2020 too, pilgrims were allowed to go on the yatra amid a series of restrictions. According to reports, while the yatra saw 38 lakh pilgrims in 2019, just over 4 lakh were recorded in 2020.

According to the New Indian Express, the state government is also likely to limit the number of pilgrims who can visit a shrine per day. Last year, the number of daily pilgrims was fixed at 800 for the Kedarnath shrine, 1200 for Badrinath, 600 for Gangotri and 400 for Yamunotri shrines.

Last week, the Uttarakhand high court had observed that the pilgrimage cannot be allowed to turn into another Kumbh Mela, referring to the sharp spike in COVID-19 cases in the state.

On April 20, the high court asked the state government to publicise the standard operating procedures for the yatra. Chief Justice R.S. Chauhan and Justice Alok Kumar Verma made the remarks during the virtual hearing of a clutch of petitions related to the state government’s handling of the pandemic.

The state’s experience with the Kumbh Mela suggests that the mere existence of SOPs will be insufficient to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The Centre and state governments had issued SOPs before the Kumbh Mela as well. Several hundred police officers who were deployed to control crowds of devotees who arrived for the Mela have been infected with the virus, according to CNN 18.

On April 27, the Uttarakhand reported 5,703 new COVID-19 cases and 96 new deaths. The rise in cases was the highest since the outbreak of the pandemic last year.

Until now, 2,309 people have died of COVID-19 in the state and its cumulative tally of confirmed cases stands at 1,62,562. Of these, 43,032 are active, while 1,13,736 people have recovered from the infection so far.