Puri Jagannath Rath Yatra Draws Lakhs of People. Is it Even Possible to Practice Social Distancing?


Puri Jagannath Rath Yatra Draws Lakhs of People. Is it Even Possible to Practice Social Distancing?

Illustration: Mitesh Parmar

It’s been nearly three months since a lockdown was enforced to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. Today, the number of confirmed cases continues to be on the rise, even as parts of the country begin their journey back to normalcy.

A week after putting a stay on festivities, the Supreme Court has now ruled that the country is ready for its first post-pandemic yatra.

On Monday, it said that the Odisha government was free to decide on whether it could hold the rath yatra in Puri this year — albeit “without public participation”, and provided a few restrictions were put in place in advance.

The state will assess the situation and if need be, take steps to restrict festivities, the court ruled, a day ahead of the festivities, which usually draw lakhs of devotees to Jagannath temple in Odisha’s Puri.

The SC had earlier ruled the yatra would have to be cancelled this year due to the pandemic. “Any spread of COVID-19 due to this will be disastrous since large numbers are involved… And it is not possible to track all the people infected after they have gone back to their respective homes,” a bench headed by Justice S A Bobde had said.

But the central government, along with a number of petitioners had argued that the yatra was a “matter of faith for crores” and that such a ritual “could not be interfered with”.

“Only people tested negative (for coronavirus) and working in the Lord Jagannath temple can be part of the ritual… If Lord Jagannath will not come out tomorrow, he cannot come out for 12 years as per traditions,” Solicitor General Tushar Mehta had told the bench.

The Centre had also suggested that the event could be telecast live for devotees.

Taking into account these petitions, in Monday’s judgement, the court reversed its earlier order and ruled that the event would be allowed to be held this year, without public participation, or compromising on health issues.

The Centre, and the state government led by Naveen Patnaik will now have one day to take a call on the restrictions that will, and will not be put in place during the festival.

Given how hard it has been to contain the pandemic even with a strict lockdown, it will be interesting to see how social distancing measures will work at an event of this scale.