West Bengal govt presses ahead with Gangasagar Mela despite spike in caseload

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The West Bengal is still to take a decision on curtailing Gangasagar Mela, held on Sagar Island on Makar Sankranti (January 14) despite Covid-19 cases spiralling in the state, especially in Kolkata. The mela attracts over 20 lakh people each year.

Chief Secretary Harikrishna Dwivedi said the government was working out the details on how to conduct the mela by following health protocols.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee recently held an administrative meeting at the mela grounds, The Indian Express reported. When asked if the government would cancel the gathering, she said it was not a government festival, but a public event. People come for the mela from different parts of India.

The Gangasagar Mela is one of India’s largest religious gatherings after the Kumbh Mela. It was held under strict Covid-19 restrictions last year and didn’t attract many people.

Sources told The Indian Express that the Trinamul Congress-led government planned to hold the mela on a grand scale this time as Banerjee eyes a bigger profile in national politics. A senior party leader said the mela had immense national importance and the government made arrangements to showcase it.

The Trinamul Congress is also wary of the BJP’s reaction if the government cut back the celebrations.

The government’s new measures include online registration and e-snan to take the mela to those people who can’t attend. The district administration in South 24 Parganas will also hire 20 drones to sprinkle “holy water” on pilgrims.

According to plans shared by officials with The Indian Express, Covid-19 testing facilities would be set up at entry points and every devotee would be screened. All health facilities will have first aid centres and buffer zones throughout the 110 km length between Kolkata’s Outram Ghat and Sagar Island. There will also be rapid test facilities at 13 locations such as railways stations and bus stands.

The government has also set aside four dedicated Covid-19 hospitals to handle possible cases with a capacity of 500 beds. Facilities with 1,910 beds are also being set up between Outram Ghat and Sagar Island, apart from five Severe Acute Respiratory Illness (SARI) isolation wards with a 125-bed capacity and four safe homes with a capacity of 235 beds.

There will be seven quarantine centres with 435 beds for direct contacts of Covid-19 patients during the mela period. The district administration has also decided to set aside six cremation grounds and six burial grounds for “safe” disposal of bodies.

Twenty-five ambulances will be dedicated for the health posts, apart from air and ambulances. There will be 75 additional ambulances for non-Covid patients.

To handle emergencies, the government has set up a dedicated rapid response team, while a reserve pool of specialist medical officers will be on standby at the headquarters.

A government official told The Indian Express that they had also designed a software to track Covid-19 patients from the medical screening stage till they reached home after recovering.

However, despite these efforts, the government has faced criticism from opposition parties. The CPI(M) lashed out at the government for going ahead with the mela. CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty said the government should be concerned about managing the Covid-19 situation instead of organising fairs and festivals, The Indian Express reported.

BJP Bengal unit spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya said there was a third Covid-19 wave coming and the government had to decide if they would continue the mela.

The controversy surrounding the mela follows the large gatherings during Christmas and New Year in Kolkata. West Bengal’s Covid-19 cases have surged since then, with Kolkata reporting half the fresh caseload in the past seven days.

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