Uttaranchal High Court: The Division Bench of Raghvendra Singh Chauhan, CJ. and Alok Kumar Verma, J., decided on the series of petitions which were filed requesting the State to review its decision with regard to re-opening of the Char Dham Yatra even in a phased manner considering the fact that the country was still reeling under the impact of COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Ashish Chauhan, Additional Secretary, Culture and Religious Affairs Department had submitted an affidavit with regard to the decision taken by the Cabinet on 25-06-2021, and with regard to the SOP issued by the Government on 26-06-2021, and with regard to other arrangements being made at the Char Dham.

The issue before this Court was whether under the present circumstances, and the circumstances which are likely to occur in the near future, the Char Dham Yatra should be re-opened or not? According to the decision of the cabinet it had decided to permit the opening of the Char Dham Yatra from 01-07-2021, to the limited extent that residents of the districts of Chamoli, Rudraprayag, and Uttarakhand would be permitted to visit the temples within their respective districts.

The Court found it necessary to consider the history of COVID-19 pandemic to consider the devastation it has caused. The Court believed that the issue before it was not a regional but a global one thus it had to be determined with a catholic vision.

The Court stated that the second wave struck the country like a tsunami. It not only killed about three lakhs people in the country, but in its wake it has also left devastated families, and orphaned children. It reached its zenith in April and May, 2021. During that period, neither the lifesaving medicines were available, nor the oxygen tanks were available, nor sufficient numbers of bed were available, nor were sufficient numbers of ambulances available. The health care system began to crumble. It is common knowledge that as people began to die, there were insufficient spaces in our crematorium and burial grounds. People could not perform a decent cremation, or decent burial to our lost brethren. The satellite images of May, 2020, and the International Media continued to show the endless number of pyres which were burning, and the pitiable condition of our people.

The Court then relying on the expert reports stated that one of the great contributory factors for the steep rise in the second wave was the ill-decision to hold Kumbh Mela at Haridwar between 01-04-2021 to 30-04-2021. According to the media reports, about 57% of deaths in Uttarakhand itself, which occurred in May, 2021, were due to holding of the Kumbh Mela in April, 2021.The pictures of Kumbh Mela not only embarrassed the entire country, but also shocked the world community. The Court then mentioned  examples of the countries which had already gone into the third wave and had imposed lockdowns.

According to Dr. Randeep Guleria, the Director of the All India Institute of Medical Science, New Delhi, the third wave of COVID-19 infection is “inevitable”. According to him, due to the crowd in public places, there shall be no escape from the third wave.

Court had noticed that the Central Government had announced that the Delta plus variant has been detected in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Kerala and that just in one week, the delta plus variant has accelerated speedily from three states to eleven states. This variant is known to be immune from vaccines. The Court was also unhappy with the rate at which vaccination was taking place in the State.

The Court was fearful of the fact that even the SOP issued during the Kumbh Mela was equally elaborate, equally detailed, and equally reassuring that the precautions for containing the COVID19 pandemic would be strictly followed by the pilgrims. Yet, despite the best intentions of the State Government, the Civil Administration of Haridwar and Rishikesh had singularly failed to implement the said SOPs. There were large numbers of images, readily available on the internet, which clearly prove that a sizeable number of pilgrims neither wore masks, nor maintained the social distance of six feet, nor used the sanitizers, nor used the soaps to wash their hands. In fact lakhs of people were permitted to gather on the banks of the holy Ganges, and to take their bath day in and day out, while the Kumbh Mela lasted for a month. On the days of Shahi Snaan, the crowd surged; the SOPs were observed more in breach, than in adherence.

Even recently, on 20-06-2021, on the occasion of Ganga Dusshera, a crowd of more than one lakh was permitted to congregate at Har ki Pauri in Haridwar, and to take the bath in the holy Ganges. Even on the occasion of Ganga Dusshera, the crowd failed to adhere to the SOP; the Civil Administration of Haridwar equally failed to ensure that the SOP is “strictly implemented”.

The Court found that the affidavit submitted was absolutely silent on two essential issues:

  1. Whether the pilgrims would be permitted to take bath in the holy Kunds (pools), which are existing at Badrinath and Kedarnath, or not?
  2. Considering the fact that the monsoon has already struck, and the monsoon has already spread throughout Uttarakhand, considering the fact that on 16-06-2013, Kedarnath had witnessed a disastrous tragedy, where 5,748 persons lost their lives, the affidavit is absolutely silent on the point as to what arrangements are being made, have been made, or will be made in case any natural calamity strikes any of the four Char Dham shrines?

The Court opened that the Cabinet has not only ignored those reasons, but has also ignored the warnings given by the scientific community, ignored the directions issued by the Central Government, and ignored the directions issued by the Hon’ble Supreme Court, where the Hon’ble Supreme Court has been directing the States to ensure that there is no gathering of crowds. In the present circumstances, the decision of the Cabinet is prima facie arbitrary and unreasonable. Hence, it is prima facie violative of Article 14 of the Constitution of India.

There is, thus, a strong prima facie case in favour of the people, for not permitting the Char Dham Yatra, even in a limited manner. For, the lives of the people may be exposed to the danger of the Delta Plus variant, and to the third wave of COVID-19. If the Char Dhar Yatra were permitted, we would again be inviting a catastrophe.

In case the Delta Plus variant is permitted to play havoc with the lives of our children, the nation is bound to lose a part of its next generation. Such an apocalypse would adversely affect the growth, and the progress of the entire country.

The Court further added that it may be argued that the decision dated 25-06-2021 is not under challenge before this Court. Thus, it cannot be stayed by this Court. However, technicalities of law cannot come in the way of protection of the people. The Court refused to accept the argument that live streaming of all the ceremonies carried out at the Char Dham Shrines may be prohibited by our shashtras holding that live streaming would permit the devout people to have “darshan” of the deity in the comfort and safety of their homes. Moreover, live streaming is already being done by other temples across the country.

The Government should make sure that the live streaming is done throughout the country, so that the devotees may not only witness the deity, but may also pray to the same.[SACHDANAND DABRAL v. UNION OF INDIA, Writ Petition (PIL) No. 58 of 2020, decided on 28-06-2021]

Suchita Shukla, Editorial Assistant has reported this brief.

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