Events & Expos

Not just Kumbh Mela, neglectfulness at small religious events in rural India is causing a surge in COVID-19 cases; UP’s Ballia is case in point


Over the weekend, Ballia town came to a standstill due to the convoy of vehicles going to the Mundan Samaroh. People were stuck in traffic for hours, but the administration neither tried to stop the crowd nor did it register an FIR

Since last year, 2,74,411 people in India have lost their lives to the deadly COVID-19 . It’s worth pointing out that this figure indicates the number of registered deaths, while the number of unregistered deaths across the country is much higher — as this set of articles investigates. Of the two kinds of mass gatherings that have contributed to super spreader events – political rallies in five states, and the amassing of devotees at religious events – the second has proved particularly hard to handle, given the deep-rooted nature of faith.

During the ongoing second wave of COVID-19 in Uttar Pradesh, hundreds of devotees tested positive for the coronavirus during the first Kumbh Mela and when gathering at the funeral of the Muslim religious guru of Badaun, people broke all the lockdown rules. It was not even a week since the incident that Uttar Pradesh’s Ballia district came into the limelight. Once again, the district administration remained the prime spectator while thousands flouted every pandemic-related rule.

A large number of villagers gathered in the name of carrying out the tradition of ‘Mundan Samaroh’ at Ganga Ghat in Shivrampur village of Ballia district. This took place in the district when COVID-19 had spread its footprint across most villages of Ballia. According to the COVID Bulletin issued by the Ballia administration, a total of 20,884 people have tested positive thus far in Ballia. On 14 May, only 176 people were found to be COVID-19 positive, while 2,818 were tested in total. But the very next day, only 38 people were found to be positive, while the total tests conducted stood at 2,341.

Questions need to be asked about efficacy of testing only two or three thousand per day in a district of 32.9 lakh people. This correspondent took these questions to the COVID-19 testing in-charge Ziaul Huda. “Testing is set according to targets given by state government,” he explained, “Which is, in turn, dependent on the testing capacity of the lab. Now if we take 5,000 samples, and the lab is unable to analyse them at the time, what will we do?”

This correspondent contacted the Chaura village of Suhavan block, where there have been 14 deaths in the past 14 days. The village head Anil Singh said, “Five deaths occurred in the village on the same day. In the last wave, when people would hesitate and run away from the idea of tests, I got 300 tests done in my village. But in the second wave, where the situation is worse across the country, testing is more needed more than ever. There is a family of 26 members, one of whom is COVID-19 positive. We have been asking the administration for several days to test the entire family, but no tests have been done. Now we are requesting the district administration to test all the villagers.”

A local on condition of anonymity said, “The condition of Ballia today is that around 70 percent of the villagers here have had COVID-19 . To boost their recovery, people are drinking concoctions made at home or are taking paracetamol. Those who were involved in physical work are strong and recover. There is no treatment is available here so those who are not fit, die. The administration does not have any data on such patients and deaths. The truth is that there is almost no testing here. Everyday, one to two deaths occur in each village. I am a resident of Shukhpura village, the former head of the village has also died, the number of such deaths (confirmed COVID-19 ones) is three to four. But in the past 15 days, 23 people have died.”

He added, “Despite adverse conditions in Ballia, 50,000 to 60,000 people attended the Mundan Samaroh on Parashuram Jayanti at Ganga Ghat in Shivrampur village yesterday. This is the ghat from which a large number of bodies were washed away on the evening of 10 May. The District Information Department gave this information to the journalists. How did so many people arrive at the Mundan Samaroh at the same ghat? Was that safe considering the COVID-19 situation? The ghat is a mere three kilometres away from the district magistrate’s office.”

Manish Pandey, a teacher from Shivrampur village, said, “This tradition of ‘Mundan’ is very old. As part of this, members of the family aged two-and-a-half and five years of age are taken to the River Ganga and their heads are shaved. As part of this tradition, if a child is to be shaved, the presence of his relatives is required. Offerings are made after the ceremony. During this, food for 200 to 400 people is organised by the child’s family.”

He continued, “At present, fewer people are going with their whole families. I estimate that around 1,000 children would have been shaved at the Shivrampur Ghat; only 25 to 30 people would have gone with each family. The total number of attendees would have been around 30,000 or so. The sons of four of my acquaintances were shaved as part of the ceremony and there were around 100 attendees in total.”

Chandrajit Yadav, a villager of Hanumanganj block of Ballia, spoke to this correspondent without a mask, nor a willingness to put one on.

When asked if he was concerned about contracting the coronavirus , he responded, “Where is Corona? We are not afraid, and that is why no one has put on a mask in the ghat. The deaths that are occurring are actually not due to COVID-19 ; they are from the common cold and fever. COVID-19 numbers are being intentionally increased and released publicly.”

Over the weekend, Ballia town came to a standstill due to the convoy of vehicles going to the Mundan Samaroh. People were stuck in traffic for hours, but the administration neither tried to stop the crowd nor did it register an FIR. It may be recalled that FIRs had been lodged against the crowd of thousands of Muslim leaders in Badaun.

When the sub-divisional magistrate of Ballia was asked about penalties against villagers going to Shivrampur Ghat, he said, “I have myself fined 1,000 vehicles. But such is the recognition of the Mundan ceremony that the people reached the ghats.” When the SDM was asked who would be responsible if the mass gathering lead to an increase in COVID-19 infections in Ballia, he ended the conversation. The district magistrate and additional district magistrate were also contacted, but opted not to speak on the topic.

“On the occasion of Akshaya Tritiya (last Friday), people came for the shaving of the heads of their children at the Mundan Samaroh. It should be recalled that election rallies were also held during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Generally, if any tradition is stopped, there is resentment among the people. People celebrate the Mundan like a festival here. Two hundred people go to one Mundan. Now in such a situation if the administration comes up with stricter rules and carries out lathi charges to enforce them, then people will be injured as large number of children, women and old people are also present there. So, I hold society responsible for this, not the administration,” said a local.


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