With less than a 1 per cent active ratio and about a 1.8 per cent test positivity ratio, the Odisha government has announced a set of severely crazy restrictions to prevent Hindu devotees from celebrating their festivals. At a time when the infections are steadily declining, the Naveen Patnaik government issued directives to the state authorities, asking them to observe muted celebrations of the Hindu festivals in the name of curbing the COVID-19 outbreak.
As the festival season approaches, the BJD government in Odisha has allowed Durga Puja, Ganesh Puja and all other festivals’ celebrations, but without a congregation of devotees. The directive is applicable till November 21 this year.
The Special Relief Commissioner (SRC) issued guidelines in this regard on Monday. The guidelines were issued after the Union Health secretary Rajesh Bhushan urged the states to actively consider the imposition of local restrictions and to curb mass gatherings.
“In light of this order, and given upcoming festivals such as Muharram (August 19), Onam (August 21), Janmashtami (August 30), Ganesh Chaturthi (September 10), Durga Puja (October 5-15), where large public gatherings are expected, it is advised that states may actively consider the imposition of local restrictions in public observation of these festivals and curb mass gatherings,” Bhushan said in his letter.
After Union Health Secretary’s exhortation, the Odisha government displayed an unmatched alacrity in enforcing restrictions that are among the strictest in the entire country.
“It is directed that congregations for the celebration of Ganesh Puja, Durga Puja, Laxmi Puja, Kali Puja and other similar festivals shall not be allowed in public throughout the state. However, religious rituals in churches/ temples/ mosques/ places of worship will continue as usual with a limited number of persons with strict adherence to Covid protocols,” the order said.
The SRC further added that to conduct puja in puja pandals or mandaps, the organisers will have to seek permission from the District Magistrate or any other officer authorised by him/her.
According to the official privy to the new strictures, the restrictions are imposed because the congregation of people for celebrating festivals have the potential of turning into potent coronavirus hotspots and where enforcing COVID appropriate behaviour becomes difficult as a large number of devotees come in contact with each other to celebrate pujas.
As per the stringent restrictions introduced by the state government, no more than 7 persons, including the organisers (Kartas) and priests and support staff would be allowed to be present at the puja pandal/ mandap. The persons present at puja pandal/ mandap shall follow all Covid protocols of social distancing, mask usage, personal hygiene and sanitation issued by central or state government/ local administration in letter and spirit.
The Crazy Covid restrictions in Odisha
This is perhaps the first time that the size of the idol that each pandal/mandap will have is also being regulated by the Odisha government. One of the preposterous guidelines issued by the government says the idol size could not be greater than 4 feet. It ordained puja pandals/mandaps be covered on three sides and the 4th side is covered in such a way as to not allow any public view of the idols. The guidelines also include that there would be no darshan for public devotees.
The guidelines also included an additional provision that mandated organisers and persons involved in conducting the puja to abide by other restrictions imposed by local administration or appropriate authority.
Furthermore, there shall be no immersion procession this year around. The idols will be immersed in artificial ponds created by the local administration for this purpose. In addition to this, the guidelines also call for the banning of all religious procession of any kind by any religious community. It is also extended to Muharram celebrations in the state. Neither will there be any feast associated with any puja/festival during the said period of restrictions, the guidelines said.
It is worth noting that the total active cases in the state stand at 10,011. The active ratio, which provides the prevalence of the contagion among the population, is around 1 per cent. Similarly, the test positivity ratio, which gives the percentage of COVID-19 tests that came positive, is also hovering at around 1. 8 per cent levels. As far as vaccination is concerned, 9.6 per cent population of Odisha is fully vaccinated and around 32 per cent population has received at least one dose of vaccination.
The problematic aspects of the Covid-19 restrictions
Despite ebbing caseloads and increasing vaccinations, the state government in Odisha has presided over one of the craziest restriction regimes in the entire country. The absurdly strict guidelines not only impinge on the religious traditions associated with various festivals but also deprive devotees of their freedom to profess their religion as enshrined in the Indian Constitution.
Devotees visiting pandals/mandaps for the darshan of their respective Gods is an age-old tradition, followed for centuries. By denying them from visiting pandals, imposing regulations on the idol size of deities, the state is essentially interfering in the religious practices of its citizens on the pretext of controlling the outbreak.
Such strict restrictions also have a devastating impact on the economy, which is already faltering due to coronavirus-induced lockdowns. The festive season adds much-needed fillip to the economic activities, with devotees spending on puja paraphernalia and other things to celebrate their festivals. It provides an impetus to the overall economy. But, by imposing strict restrictions, the state government is condemning its citizens to continue living under severe economic distress.
As such, COVID-19 is here to stay, with the virus mutating into newer variants. In such a scenario, complete and absolute lockdown as witnessed during the start of the pandemic last year cannot be applied for eternity. Nor should India follow oppressive states such as North Korea or China in absolute lockdown to tackle the contagion. Instead, such measures only add to the growing economic difficulties and take a toll on the psychological well being of the masses. The state should, therefore, strive for achieving normalcy while exercising caution and enforcing reasonable restrictions without going down the path of aping dictatorial regimes as done by the Odisha government.