Drones sprayed holy water from the Ganges on thousands of Hindu pilgrims on Friday to reduce crowds at a massive festival being held despite India’s soaring COVID-19 cases.
The Gangasagar Mela in the east of the country has drawn comparisons to another “super-broadcast” Hindu gathering last year that the Hindu nationalist government refused to ban. He was blamed in part for a devastating COVID surge.
Officials had said they expected around 3 million people – including ash-coated and dreadlocked ascetics – to attend the festival’s climax on Sagar Island, where the Ganges meets the Bay of Bengal.
“At dawn, there was a sea of people,” local official Bankim Hazra told AFP by telephone.
“Holy water from the Ganges was sprayed by drones on the pilgrims (…) to avoid crowding,” he said.
“But the Saints and a large number of people were determined to bathe… The pilgrims, most without masks, outnumbered the security personnel.”
An AFP photographer said there were fewer people than in recent years and the rain deterred some pilgrims from making the trip.
But there were still huge crowds, most without masks, taking a holy bath in the river.
A police officer on duty at the event said it was “impossible” to enforce COVID restrictions.
“Most pilgrims are determined to defy the rules,” he said.
“They believe that God will save them and bathing at the confluence will cleanse all their sins and even the virus if they are infected.”
Deaths from the current wave of infections in India are only a fraction of what they were during the surge in April and May last year, with 315 deaths recorded on Thursday compared to 4,000 a day at the strongest.
Infections are rising rapidly, however, with nearly 265,000 new cases on Thursday. Some models predict that India could see up to 800,000 cases a day within weeks, double the rate seen nine months ago.
Anxious to avoid a painful new lockdown for millions of workers who depend on a few dollars a day’s wages, authorities in different parts of India have sought to restrict gatherings.
In New Delhi, all bars, restaurants and private offices are closed, and the capital is expected to enter its second curfew of the weekend on Friday evening.
In the financial capital of Mumbai, gatherings of more than four people are prohibited.
But in the state of West Bengal, the High Court in Kolkata on Friday allowed the Gangasagar Mela to continue.
As with the 2021 Kumbh Mela, it has drawn people from across northern India who, after cramming into trains, buses and boats to reach the island, will then return home – potentially taking with them the highly transmissible variant of the omicron virus.
Amitava Nandy, a virologist at the School of Tropical Medicine in Kolkata, said the government “has neither the facilities nor the manpower” to test everyone present or enforce social distancing.
“A stampede-like situation could occur if the police tried to enforce social distancing on the bank,” Nandy told AFP.
Devotee Sarbananda Mishra, a 56-year-old teacher from neighboring Bihar state, told AFP: “Faith in God will overcome fear of COVID. Bathing will cleanse them from all their sins and bring them salvation. .
“Death is the ultimate truth. What’s the point of living in fear?”