Jostling crowds, no masks: Norms go for a toss as pilgrims return to Gangasagar Mela

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On a day the elections to four municipal corporations in West Bengal were postponed in view of the rising Covid-19 cases, several transit points for Gangasagar Mela saw jostling crowds, some without masks and some dangling them on their chins. The authorities though, said they tried their best to enforce the curbs and protocols in place.

Sailing across the Muriganga river from Sagardwip, scores of devotees arrived at Harwood Point on Saturday after taking the holy dip on Makar Sankranti. Vessels loaded with returning pilgrims docked at ghats 2 and 3 at Harwood Point.

A frequent sight since Saturday morning was of ferries arriving at the designated docking points loading off pilgrims numbering in excess of 300. Shukdev Bera, who was at the wheel of one of these vessels, said, “Each ferry has the capacity to carry around three hundred passengers. However, we are ferrying at least 350 passengers in each trip. The number of passengers, though, is much less than previous years. Earlier, when Covid wasn’t around, we used to bring more than 700 passengers in a single trip.”

As the vessels docked at the ghats, civic volunteers and those deployed by the Bharat Sevasram Sangha could be heard reminding the devotees to wear masks and maintain social distance. Prem Bharti, a 55-year-old seer who arrived without wearing a mask, said, “Main sadhu hun. Hum sada aadmi hain. Humko mask ki zaroorat nahin hain. (I am a seer and a simple person. I don’t need any mask).”

Bharti wasn’t alone as many other returning seers were seen without masks and several of them hadn’t taken Covid-19 vaccines either. Dashmi Prasad (61), a resident of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh, said, “What vaccine?. Why would I take a vaccine? I am doing well.”

While giving its go-ahead to the state government to organise the fair, the Calcutta High Court formed a two-member committee to monitor compliance with Covid-19 norms at the event. The committee has also been vested with the authority to give necessary instructions to the government and those have been implemented by the chief secretary.

However, the scene on the ground was in stark contrast on Saturday as most pilgrims threw caution to the winds. Saraswati Devi from Jamui in Bihar was among several women devotees who arrived at Harwood Point without masks. As the police and civic volunteers asked why they weren’t wearing masks, they hurriedly covered their faces with their shawls.

Parikshit Biswas, a 30-year-old civic volunteer, said, “More than 1.5 lakh masks were distributed to the devotees before they left for Sagar Island. However, almost fifty per cent of the pilgrims did not even bother to put them on. We tried our best but it is impossible to implement the rules if people are not willing to abide by them.”

A senior district official said, “Visitors started arriving at the fairground ten days before Makar Sankranti. The number of pilgrims was the highest on the day of the festival. Last year, on Makar Sankranti, the footfall was more than 20,000. This year the figure crossed 30,000. However, due to the high court’s order to set up a monitoring panel and awareness campaigns from various sections of the society, the crowd of pilgrims was lesser this time than previous years. We were anticipating a lot more.”

Meanwhile,  the state government on Saturday issued fresh orders related to Covid-19 restrictions, which were extended till January 31.

According to the new guidelines, a maximum of 200 people will be allowed at a marriage-related ceremony at a time or 50 per cent seating capacity at the venue. Melas/Fairs will be allowed in open air areas in a restricted manner, following Covid-appropriate discipline and protocols.

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