If the Uttar Pradesh government failed to learn from India’s devastating second Covid-19 wave, it would do well to at least take a cue from the Supreme Court saying “citizens are perplexed” as it moves to allow the Kanwar Yatra from July 25. With the threat of a third wave looming large, there is little reason for people to congregate—and be mobile across large distances as a congregation. Indeed, the prime minister himself has urged Covid-appropriate action; what holds true for travellers thronging the hills should surely hold for pilgrims in camps and trucks, too? While the SC noted that the Uttarakhand government, “with hindsight of experience”, has cancelled the Yatra, it issued notices to the Centre and the governments of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, to clarify their stand in the matter. The Centre may want people to take warnings of a third wave more seriously than “mere weather updates”, but for that to meaningfully happen, leaders have to set the example. The home ministry wants states to affix personal responsibility on district officers for strict enforcement of Covid-19 behaviour; allowing the Kanwar Yatra sits quite oddly with such course of action.
The UP government, as per various news reports, is of the view that the Yatra can be safely undertaken with fewer pilgrims than usual, and strict implementation of Covid-19 protocol; negative RT-PCR reports could also be made compulsory. However, the Kumbh experience shows this may be possible only on paper; the Uttarakhand authorities failed to enforce Covid-appropriate behaviour, a probe is now on to determine the scale of RT-PCR reports faked at the time of the festival. Many experts believe the Kumbh was a super-spreader event. Even if it weren’t, the fact is that the government allowed 7-9 million devotees to congregate, and it soon became clear that Covid-19 protocol can’t be enforced on such congregations. The Kanwar Yatra is no Kumbh, but carries similar risks.
While the official Covid-19 death numbers may not seem too high, multiple ground reports, visuals of packed cremation/burial grounds and bodies buried in shallow graves along river banks and floating in the river, etc, suggests serious under-counting of the dead, especially in the rural areas and among the underprivileged sections. Indeed, an IndiaSpend analysis shows that deaths from unknown causes in May 21 numbered 300,000 more than the May 2019 numbers, and were 2.5 times the official Covid toll for May. It is true that not all these deaths can be attributed to Covid, but it is also true that such a sharp jump from a non-pandemic year could have the pandemic as a significant underlying cause. All efforts needed to prevent a third wave, or at the very least, a similar toll, must be made—more so if variants with even greater immune escape capability than Delta emerge. UP has managed to vaccinate only 14.4% of its population with at least one dose, against Uttarakhand’s 35.5%; there is perhaps a lesson it should learn from the latter leaning on the side of caution rather than faith.