On Friday, drones sprayed holy water from the Ganges on thousands of Hindu pilgrims to reduce crowds during a massive festival being held despite India’s skyrocketing COVID-19 cases.
The Gangasagar Mela in the east of the country is comparable to another gathering of Hindu “super-spreaders” last year, which the Hindu nationalist government refused to ban. It has been partly blamed for the devastating COVID surge.
Officials said they expected about 3 million people, including ash-smeared ascetics with dreadlocks, to attend the festival’s culmination on Sagar Island, where the Ganges flows into the Bay of Bengal.
“At dawn, there was a sea of people,” a local official, Bankim Khazra, told AFP by phone.
“Holy water from the Ganges River was sprayed by drones on pilgrims … to prevent crowding,” he said.
“But the saints and a large number of people were eager to take a dip… There were more pilgrims, most of whom were without masks, than security personnel.”
An AFP photographer said there were fewer people than in recent years and that the rain had delayed some pilgrims from the trip.
But there were still huge crowds, mostly without masks, bathing in the river.
A police officer on duty at the event said it was “impossible” to enforce COVID restrictions.
“Most pilgrims tend to ignore the rules,” he said.
“They believe that God will save them, and bathing at the confluence will cleanse them of all sins and even the virus if they become infected.”
The death toll from India’s current wave of infections remains only a fraction of what it was during the spike in April and May last year, with 315 deaths recorded on Thursday, compared to 4,000 a day at its peak.
However, the number of infections is rising rapidly, with nearly 265,000 new cases reported on Thursday. Some models predict that India could have up to 800,000 cases a day in a few weeks, double what it was nine months ago.
In an effort to avoid another painful lockdown for millions of workers dependent 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 a second weekend curfew will enter the capital on Friday evening.
Gatherings of more than four people are banned in the financial capital of Mumbai.
But in the state of West Bengal, the Calcutta High Court on Friday allowed the Gangasagar mela to take place.
As with the 2021 Kumbh Mela, it has attracted people from all over northern India who, having boarded trains, buses and boats to reach the island, will then travel home, potentially taking a highly transmissible variant of the omicron virus with them.
Amitawa Nandi, a virologist at Kolkata’s School of Tropical Medicine, said the government “doesn’t have the funds or manpower” to test everyone present or enforce social distancing.
“There could be a situation similar to a stampede if the police try to enforce social distancing on the river bank,” Nandi told AFP.
Devotee Sarbananda Mishra, a 56-year-old schoolteacher from the neighboring state of Bihar, told AFP: “Faith in God will overcome the fear of COVID. Bathing will cleanse them of all sins and bring salvation.
“Death is the ultimate truth. What is the point of living with fear?