No Masks, No Social Distancing: Looks Like There’s No Threat of Coronavirus at Jagannath Rath Yatra in Puri


No Masks, No Social Distancing: Looks Like There’s No Threat of Coronavirus at Jagannath Rath Yatra in Puri

Illustration: Arati Gujar

The Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra went ahead as planned on Tuesday, a day after the Supreme Court allowed the procession to take place, without public attendees and provided physical distancing measures were put in place. This is the first-time ever that the seven-day chariot festival has kicked off without devotees.

A week ago the SC had stayed the Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra citing concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. “Lord Jagannath will not forgive us if we allow this festival,” a bench led by Justice S A Bobde had said.

After hearing petitions from both the Centre and state, however, the court reversed its order on Monday and allowed the festival to take place with restrictions — including limiting the number of priests who were allowed to pull the chariots to 500, and ensuring that everyone who was taking part was tested for the new coronavirus.

Just a day later, the Odisha government announced that they had tested over 1000 servitors — of which one was found Covid-19 positive and left out of proceedings.

On paper, it seems like all precautions were taken amid the coronavirus crisis. But clips shared from the Jagannath temple grounds on Tuesday morning, meanwhile, show priests not maintaining social distancing norms as they pull the chariots. Many were seen not wearing face masks either.

Even the King of Puri Gajapati Maharaj Dibyasingha Deb was seen, his mask slipping from his face.

Some social media users accused the government, which petitioned the Supreme Court to allow the proceedings to happen, of “playing politics with people’s lives”.

A few noted that the clips from the Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra had reminded them of the Tablighi Jamaat conference, which only three months ago had made headlines as India’s “first superspreader”.

Since the Supreme Court verdict, other temples have also asked that processions be allowed to take place on their premises. Hours after the ruling, petitions were moved in the Gujarat High Court to permit a rath yatra in Ahmedabad, one of the cities in India worst hit by Covid-19, a report said. However, in a hearing that continued past 2 am, the HC refused to quash stay on the procession.

Unfortunately, the top court and government thought it was wiser to pick religion and politics over health.

The tally of coronavirus cases in Odisha has risen to 5,470 after 167 more infections were reported in a day. Let’s hope the Odisha government has what it takes to handle the added pressure the procession is likely to put on an already fragile healthcare system.