COVID-19| SC modifies order; Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra to take place in a restricted manner

Supreme Court: Allowing Odisha Government to conduct Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra, the Court has said,

if it is possible to ensure that there is no public attendance, we see no reason why the Rath Yatra cannot be conducted safely along its usual route from temple to temple.”

Taking note of the fact that in the 18th-19th century a yatra of this kind was responsible for the spread of cholera and plague “like wild fire”, the Court said that the authorities concerned should remain aware that the situation can become dangerous if the rules of caution are ignored.

Refusing to micro-manage the rituals, the Court left it to the wisdom of State, the Centre and temple management to conduct Puri’s Rath Yatra, scheduled to start from June 23, in a restricted manner in the wake of COVID-19.

The order of the Court came after Centre sought modification in Jagannath Puri Rath Yatra order dated 18.06.2020 wherein the 3-judge bench of SA Bobde, CJ and Dinesh Maheshwari and AS Bopanna, JJ had directed that there shall be no Rath Yatra anywhere in the temple town of Odisha or in any other part of the State this year.

In the affidavit submitted before the Court, the Odisha Government said its apprehension is primarily related to thousands of Rath Yatras taking place all over the state but it can only be limited to Puri alone without public attendance as proposed by Gajapati Maharaj of Puri, Chairman of the Puri Jagannath Temple administration. The government said it will make the necessary arrangements to conduct it accordingly.

The Court, hence, issued the following directions:

  • All entry points into the City of Puri, i.e., airports, railway stations, bus stands, etc., shall be closed during the period of Rath Yatra festival.
  • State Government shall impose a curfew in the City of Puri on all the days and during all the time when Rath Yatra chariots are taken in procession. To start with, the curfew shall begin tonight at 8 P.M.
  • Each Rath, i.e., Chariot, shall be pulled by not more than 500 persons. Each of those 500 persons shall be tested for the Coronavirus. They shall be permitted to pull the chariot only if they have been found negative. The number 500 shall include officials and police personnel.
  • There shall be an interval of one hour between two chariots.
  • Each of those who is engaged in pulling the chariot shall maintain social distancing before, during and after the Rath Yatra.
  • Only such persons shall be associated with the rituals who have been found to have tested negative and shall maintain social distancing.
  • The primary responsibility for conducting the Rath Yatra in accordance with the conditions and other norms shall be that of the Committee in-charge of Puri Jagannath Temple Administration. Each member of the Committee shall be responsible for due compliance with the conditions imposed by this Court and the general directions which govern ensuring of public health issued by the Union Government. In addition, the officers designated by the State Government for conduct of the Rath Yatra shall be responsible likewise.
  • The rituals and the Rath Yatra shall be freely covered by the visual media. The State Government shall allow TV cameras to be installed at such places as may be found necessary by the TV crew.
  • The bare minimum number of people shall be allowed by the Committee to participate in the rituals and in the Rath Yatra.
  • State Government may take such help as may be found necessary from the Union Government.
  • State Government shall maintain a record containing details of all those who have been allowed to participate in the Rath Yatra or the rituals connected therewith along with details of their medical conditions after testing.

While passing the aforementioned directions, Court said,

“…State of Orissa has a good record of having controlled the pandemic with a very little loss of life. We see no reason why the same attitude of care and caution should not be applied to the Rath Yatra.”

[Odisha Vikash Parishad v. Union of India, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 533 , order dated 22.06.2020]

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