SAGAR, WEST BENGAL
About 31 lakh pilgrims have come to the Gangasagar Mela since January 5, West Bengal Minister Aroop Biswas said on January 13, claiming that the annual pilgrimage was turning out to be the biggest religious gathering in the country.
Mr. Biswas, who is in charge of Sports and Youth Welfare Department of the Government of West Bengal, while addressing a press conference at the mela grounds, said that the timing of the holy dip during Makar Sankranti was from 6.53 p.m. on January 14 to 6.53 p.m. on January 15.
Eight Ministers of the West Bengal government have been deployed at strategic locations on the route to the Gangasagar Mela and four of them addressed a press conference at the mela grounds on Friday. The Ministers who claimed that a record number of devotees had arrived at the pilgrimage said that the number of pilgrims was expected to rise in the next few days. Asked about how the government was arriving at the figure of pilgrims, Mr. Biswas said that the administration was collecting details from various strategic locations from where people were coming to the island.
Minister of Transport Department Snehasish Chakraboty who was present at the press conference said that after COVID-19 the number of pilgrims had increased by twice or thrice.
Absence of COVID-19 protocols
As lakhs of pilgrims started descending on the southernmost tip of West Bengal at Gangasagar Mela, there was a complete absence of COVID-19 related protocols.
“Since there has been no advisory from the Centre, and the State government has also issued no advisory related to COVID, there are no restrictions at the Gangasagar mela,” a senior government functionary said. Hardly any person was seen wearing a mask in the sea of people that had descended on the island.
According to Mr. Biswas, arrangements for the stay of about 12 lakh people had been made. Despite the claims, thousands of people were staying out in the open around the Kapil Muni temple area and along the beach, where river Ganga meets the sea.
Guruprasad Tripathi and Ram Sankar Singh are part of a group of 55 pilgrims who have come to the Gangasagar mela from Ayodhya. “We took a bus from Ayodhya which he had left on the other side of the river at Namkhana. We will cook and stay here in the open as there is no arrangement for accommodation,” Mr. Tripathi said. The members of the group, mostly elders, also complained about not having enough toilet facilities at the venue. Thousands of people are huddled out in the open near the temple, braving the cold waiting for their turn to take the holy dip.
About 14,000 policemen have been deployed at the Gangasagar Mela grounds. As many as 12 pickpockets have been arrested in the mela grounds and about ₹30,725 have been seized from them. A makeshift court has come up at the mela complex. Three pilgrims have been airlifted from Gangasagar and one pilgrim from Madhya Pradesh died at the Gangasagar mela. As many as 12 persons have gone missing so far at the mela.
Since the timing of the holy dip is in the evening, the administration has made arrangements for 33 high mast lights and 90 additional light posts for increased visibility along the ghats. About 42 active operators of Ham Radio under the West Bengal Radio Club are providing services at various strategic points at Gangasagar route. “We are here to reunite the missing pilgrims and help the district administration in every way possible. We are conducting ‘IOTA ISLAND On the Air’, a protocol approved by the Radio Society of Great Britain,” said Ambarish Nag Biswas, secretary, Ham Radio West Bengal Radio Club.
Emphasising on the record number of pilgrims and the arrangements made by the West Bengal government, Mr. Biswas accused the Centre of depriving the State of West Bengal and demanded the Gangasagar Mela be granted ‘National Mela’ status like the Kumbh Mela. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has also raised the demand for a ‘National Mela’ for Gangasagar Mela.