Addressing a virtual press meet on Thursday, 10 June, the Special Relief Commissioner and Development Commissioner of Odisha, Pradeep Jena, stated that, “replicating the standard operating procedures(SOP) and adhering to the COVID guidelines, the Rath Yatra will be organised the way it was done in 2020.”
He said, of the festival slated for 12 July 2021, that “it is in Puri alone that the yatra shall be allowed,” and “all other places” will be debarred “from celebrating the festival except in Puri, as it happened last year, in view of the fear of COVID infections.”
Ignoring Past Lessons
Jena, seemingly, did not recall the consequences of the festival in 2020, when ten people from the ‘sevayat’ (priest ) community, including a few senior servitors, had died due to post-COVID complications, and over seventy others were infected with COVID (as per official records).
Gatherings, for festivals like this, are the norm, to conduct rituals like ‘pahandi’ (bringing the deities from the temple to the chariots) and pulling the chariots — so, the ‘strict’ adherence of the protocols, as it appears, is an exaggeration.
It is not the 'sevayats' alone who are going to do the pulling of the three huge chariots of lord Jagannath, goddess Subhadra and lord Balabhadra. Each chariot requires at least a five hundred (500) strong people to pull it, and the administration has previously engaged the on-duty security personnel to join the priests in pulling the chariots one by one.
How Can COVID Protocol Be Followed By Large Crowds On Ground?
In the July solstice, when the humidity will be at its peak, to what extent the people on the ground will be inclined to follow COVID protocols is easy to guess.
Five hundred people at each chariot makes for a significant crowd, and nobody can ensure that among the priests and security personnel there is going to be a water-tight barrier to keep the virus at bay or stop the infection from spreading.
Rationalists are still puzzled over the decision. “When the second wave is assessed to be more virulent and seventy times more infectious than the last year... how can the administration allow it again this year,” wondered Dr P Ratha, a scholar of the Jagannath cult.
Rath finds no loss of faith if the administration chooses to hold back the festival this year in view of the second wave of COVID which hit Odisha badly, taking the average daily death toll to at least 50 per day, as per official figures.
It is not about the statistics alone — that the infection rate in the state is under ten percent — such that it can be business as usual. “It is a calculated risk we are taking by taking figures as the indicators,” said a senior doctor seeking anonymity, and added that, “we have a month or more to go and no one knows what the situation will be like then.”
Are Precautions Prior to the 2021 Festival Enough?
The administration mandated that each 'sevayat' and all security personnel are required to be vaccinated in advance and declared COVID-negative before they step into the venues.
To ensure that no devotee from outside the city can join, the administration will impose Section 144 a day prior. Similar steps were taken as per the diktat of the Supreme Court in response to a PIL seeking the postponement of the festival in 2020. But many things went wrong and some suffered.
The measures could not stop COVID from spreading, and this year too, during the making of the chariots, several craftsmen got infected.
It is difficult to guess if the state administration is simply playing to the gallery or is under pressure from the priests. All lives matter. “First comes health and then faith; if life is there then rituals can follow later,” quipped Dr Ratha.
Senior servitor of Puri, Binayak Das Mohapatra, was heard saying that ‘come-what-may, for the festival of the Lord, any risk is worth taking.’
(Dinendra Narayan Singh is a Bhubaneswar-based senior journalist and political analyst. This is a report and analysis. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)