The Supreme Court on Tuesday said it would not interfere with an Odisha government order limiting this year’s Rath Yatra to the Puri Jagannath Temple (which can only hold the iconic chariot festival on July 12, and under strict rules) due to concern over the spread of COVID-19 in the state.
The top court was hearing a batch of petitions challenging the state government’s decision, which had been upheld by the Odisha High Court last month. The petitioners wanted Rath Yatras to be held in Kendrapara and Bargarh districts of the state, as well as Puri.
A Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice of India NV Ramana studied the state’s decision in light of the Covid situation in Odisha and across the country, and dismissed all petitions.
“We hope and trust God will allow the Rath Yatra next time,” the Chief Justice said.
“I also go to Puri every year… but have not gone for the last one-and-a-half years. I do puja at home… it can be done at home. (The state) government has taken the right decision,” he added.
Apart from challenges from members of the public, the centre had also challenged the Odisha government’s decision. Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said the festivals could be held – without upsetting health protocols – by limiting attendees and imposing restrictions.
However, the Supreme Court – which last year allowed the Rath Yatra (again, only in Puri) after laying down very strict rules about the number of people who could take part – was not swayed.
The Odisha government had warned the top court it would be impossible to monitor and control crowds – to ensure use of face masks and maintaining of social distance – across the state.
Last year, despite the threat of COVID-19, tens of thousands gathered outside the iconic temple in Puri as the top court allowed the seven-day chariot festival in a restricted fashion.
Among the restrictions imposed then was an order that the state would announce a curfew when the chariots were being pulled, and that no more than 500 people (including police and temple officials) could pull it any given time.
“There shall be an interval of one hour between two chariots. Each of those engaged in pulling… shall maintain social distancing before, during and after…” the court had said.
The court had also said only those who had tested negative for COVID-19 could take part.
The Rath Yatra from the Jagannath temple is attended by lakhs of people from across the world.
Lord Jagannath is regarded as the supreme god and the sovereign monarch of the Odisha empire.
During the celebrations, he comes out of his sanctum sanctorum so devotees can see him. Temple officials claim that those who take part in the festivity “earn their passage to the heaven”.
Odisha has reported nearly 10 lakh COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began.
At the peak of the second wave the state reported over 12,000 cases in a day – a big jump from the earlier record of around 4,000 in 24 hours. This morning there were 2,800 new cases.