Happily for the thousands of pilgrims from all over the country, though not for those afflicted with coronavirus, Calcutta High Court has allowed the West Bengal government to organize the Gangasagar mela despite the surge in cases, not to forget its Omicron variant.
Rightly has the Division Bench (coram; Prakash Srivastava, CJ; and Kesang Doma Bhutia, J) placed certain restrictions to ensure the smooth ~ and healthy ~ conduct of the annual event. The state has been directed to act on the curbs with urgent dispatch. Friday’s order, which is reported to have been pronounced after considerable deliberation, has asked the authorities in Nabanna to declare the attractive Gangasagar island as a “notified area” within 24 hours of the pronouncement of the verdict.
Perhaps more crucially, the state’s home secretary has been asked to ensure that the restrictions are implemented without any lapse. Implicit in the observation is the caveat that the Gangasagar mela can never be treated in so cavalier a fashion as the first bout of the lockdown was about two years ago. Covid protocols must of necessity be followed with the strictness that the police can muster, not the least the mandatory wearing of masks, which now appears to be optional for many even in the crowded market areas.
Should some of the pilgrims be afflicted on the island, the risk of the contagion spreading on their way home to other parts of India via Kolkata is dangerously real. That fear can be contextualized with the other directive to the home secretary, specifically to issue media advertisements, making the people aware of the risk of visiting the Gangasagar Island between January 8 and 16. It is too hideous to even imagine that the Gangasagar mela could turn out to be what they call a “super spreader” of the virus.
In contrast, the closure of markets thrice a week in the South Dum Dum municipal area is at best an expression of tokenism. The High Court has treated the matter with considerable urgency. The Bench has directed the constitution of a three-member committee comprising the state’s representative, the leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, and the Chairman of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission to maintain a vigil in matters relating to compliance of the directives as well as the measures suggested by the state government in its affidavit.
The principal stakeholders are the thousands of saffron-clad pilgrims and visitors, and much will devolve on them in terms of implementation of the court order. Only then will the holy dip be truly meaningful. A potential Covid super spreader will make a mockery of the Gangasagar mela. With respect, the matter need not have gone to court; that it did will doubtless spare the administration considerable embarrassment should the event lead to an increase in cases.