India- A Pandemic gone bad or a consistent Political Disaster?

Haridwar, a small town near the Himalayas, is considered by many Hindus to be one of the holiest places in India. The famous Kumbha Mela, which is a Hindu religious festival, was held in this holy city in the year 2021- a year that saw the second wave of coronavirus hit the country. Many healthcare experts foresaw this to be a super spreader including Prof. Ashsish Jha, the Dean of Public Health at Brown University who said that the shahi snans (communal bathing in the holy river Ganga) of the festival are ‘the biggest super-spreaders in the history of this pandemic’. The state of Uttarakhand, that is home to this town reported around 500 cases a day prior to the festival. By the end of the Mela, it produced 6000 cases a day. Dharamdasji, a religious leader who promoted the Kumbh Mela and sent hundreds of thousands of his followers to partake in this festival was of the opinion that ‘”Covid will come and go,” he said. “A festival for the gods cannot be stopped.” The chief minister of Uttarakhand said ‘Most importantly, Kumbh is at the bank of the River Ganga. Mother Ganga’s blessings are there in the flow. So, there should be no corona’

What did the Government do about it?

For the festival, the Indian Railways, which is under the government of India, arranged for 12 extra trains along with 15 pairs of additional occupancy trains specifically for the pilgrims and devotees. The former CM of Uttarakhand had spoken of wanting to organize the festivities in Haridwar in a smaller scale with a more symbolic consensus, but just a meagre number of days before the Kumbh, he was replaced by the new CM Tirat Singh Rawat. Before the commencement of the event, the Chief Minister Rawat also proclaimed, “I invite all devotees across the world to come to Haridwar and take a holy dip in the Ganga during Mahakumbh. Nobody will be stopped in the name of Covid-19 as we are sure the faith in God will overcome the fear of the virus,” Sunil Barala, an MLA from the Bharatiya Janta Party said, “There were around a crore people, all protocol was being maintained,” without any further explanations about it. Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister had a somewhat delayed reaction to the crisis. After two of the holy communal baths had occurred, he tweeted about having spoken to Swami Awadheshanand Giri, one of the major spiritual masters based in Haridwar requesting that the Kumbh Mela participation is more symbolic citing to the risks due to Covid- 19. The spiritual Guru welcomed the decision and asked people to not gather for the holy bath in large numbers.

The Impact

On April 4th, the number of coronavirus cases in Uttarakhand was 837. By April 17th, which is after the two holy baths on April 12th and 14th, Uttarakhand saw 13,546 active cases. For the nation, it was hard to trace the exact number of cases that is attributed to the festival with more over 200,000 reported cases every day, as there is no official database to actually note the number of people who participated in the activity. There are certain interesting aspects in this situation. Firstly, as soon as PM Modi instructed enhanced social distancing and control, most religious leaders agreed, which points to the fact, that had the PM taken a stance before the festival started, many more deaths and cases could have been prevented. This points to an utter lack of planning and foresight- along with a halfhearted attempt to care for the public. Secondly, it is legitimately questionable as to why an event of this size was even allowed by the central government, especially because in 2020 a Delhi conference of members of Talibaghi Jamaat was blamed for the first spread of the virus, and numerous attendees were even arrested. The Talibaghi conference was a predominantly Muslim congregation, whereas the Kumbh Mela was a Hindu festival. Most critiques of the government have compared the two events, but the response from politicians remained bleak. Thus, even though one cannot reach a conclusion with surety there is definitely some similarity between the two, yet the different reactions to each gathering remains significant. It is natural to assume, that the intentional delay to place a control over the Hindu festival was to appease to the BJP vote bank, consisting mainly of devout Hindus and their followers.

Currently there are new mutations of the covid-19 virus, all over the world and India remains one of its leading producers. Supplies of oxygen are consistently drained, with social media amplifying the availability of resources, as the government keeps a mum on the matter. Vaccines were exported in an exorbitant rate, as a PR stunt that brought glory to the Prime Minister, with leaders from other nations comparing him to god, whilst the unsustainable act ensured a shortage of vaccines for the citizens of India itself. Politically there appears to be a complete dismissal of accountability, as the government moves from supporting festivities that lead to huge gatherings to holding election rallies, with the lack of social distancing. Moreover, much of India still hasn’t undergone complete digitalization, which makes a lot of the Covid-19 data undocumented. Amidst the turmoil, the central government had also asked for donations from its citizens to a charity fund called the PM cares fund for the pandemic, whilst on the other hand used a humongous amount of taxpayer’s money to renovate and build from scratch a new parliament and house for the Prime Minister himself.  

It is imperative that most of the governments decisions have been unprecedented so far, and it leaves the world wondering- Does the PM really care?

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