SC Finally Allows Jagannath Rath Yatra At Puri On Conditions.

It is heartening to see that the Supreme Court in a latest, landmark and laudable judgment titled Odisha Vikas Parishad vs Union Of India & Ors in Writ Petition(s) (Civil) No(s). 5721/2020 dated June 22, 2020 has while modifying the absolute stay on conducting the Jagannath Rath Yatra at Puri has allowed it observing the strict restrictions and regulations of the Centre and the State Government. These strict restrictions and regulations are considered imperative also considering the increasing spread of the Corona pandemic! So there is no reason to oppose them!

To start with, this noteworthy judgment that was delivered by Chief Justice of India (CJI) – Sharad Arvind Bobde, Justice Dinesh Maheshwari and Justice AS Bopanna first and foremost sets the ball rolling by observing right at the outset that, “These are applications made by several parties for intervention and modification of Order dated 18th June, 2020 passed by this Court. By that Order, we had restrained the respondents from holding the Rath Yatra this year in view of the danger presented by gathering of 10 to 12 lakhs devotees for a period of 10-12 days. Clearly any spread of the Coronavirus due to the Rath Yatra would be disastrous due to the large number of persons and the impossibility of tracking all the infected people after they have gone back to their respective homes. Needless to say that it is not possible to screen the medical conditions of all those who converge on the cities for the Rath Yatra.”

It is a no-brainer that considering the huge presence of devotees at this Rath Yatra that we witness every year, there was a dire need to impose strict restrictions to check the epidemic from further spreading very rapidly as it spreads by contact. This what the Apex Court Bench in this notable case has stated right at the outset also. There can be no denying or disputing it!

To be sure, the Apex Court Bench then very rightly went on to say as a word of caution that, “While we do not have the official copy of the gazette itself, we are informed that in the 18th-19th century a yatra of this kind was responsible for the spread of cholera and plague “like wild fire”. We say this in order to remind the authorities concerned that the situation can become dangerous if the rules of caution are ignored.”

To put things in perspective, it is then envisaged by the Apex Court Bench that, “Before we passed our earlier Order we had suggested to the parties that the procession of chariots, i.e., the Rath Yatra itself, could be allowed to proceed, however, without the general congregation which participates in this Yatra. We were informed that it would be well nigh impossible to ensure that there is no congregation. This Court was, therefore, left with no option but to grant an injunction restraining the Rath Yatra itself.”

While elaborating further, it is then pointed out by the Apex Court Bench that, “However, we find, in one of the present applications, an affidavit filed on behalf of the State of Orissa stating that it might be possible to conduct the Rath Yatra at Puri “in a limited way without public attendance”. This has been proposed by Gajapati Maharaj of Puri, who is the Chairman of the Puri Jagannath Temple Administration. Indeed, 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.”

Most significantly, it is then held by the Apex Court Bench that, “Having given serious consideration to the matter and having heard the parties, we are of the view that the Rath Yatra at Puri may be held subject to following conditions:

(1)         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.

(2)         The 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. The State Government may also impose curfew in the city of Puri on such other days and during such time as deemed necessary. During the period of curfew no one would be allowed to come out of their houses or their places of residence, such as hotels, lodging houses, etc. To start with, the curfew shall begin tonight at 8 P.M.

(3)         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.

(4)         There shall be an interval of one hour between two chariots.

(5)         Each of those who is engaged in pulling the chariot shall maintain social distancing before, during and after the Rath Yatra.

(6)         We are informed that certain rituals are associated with the Rath Yatra. We direct that only such persons shall be associated with the rituals who have been found to have tested negative and shall maintain social distancing.

(7)         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.

(8)         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.

(9)         The bare minimum number of people shall be allowed by the Committee to participate in the rituals and in the Rath Yatra. We take a note of the fact that the 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.

(10)  The State Government may take such help as may be found necessary from the Union Government. Shri Tushar Mehta, learned Solicitor General, has assured the Court that the Union Government shall offer all assistance and help to the State Government in this endeavour.

(11)  The 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.

Finally, it is then held in the last para that, “All the applications for intervention and modification of Order dated 18th June, 2020 passed by this Court are disposed of.”

All said and done, it is a commendable judgment delivered by a three Judge Bench of the Apex Court which includes the CJI also! It may be recalled that the Apex Court on June 18 had ordered that no Rath Yatra should be held keeping in mind the pandemic situation. But no it stands modified and the Rath Yatra has been permitted with the restrictions and conditions as has been already above elaborated upon in detail!

Sanjeev Sirohi

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