The Jagannath Rath Yatra, a major festival in the state of Odisha, attracting more than a million devotees, was put on an absolute stay earlier by the authorities due to the risk of infection in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It holds great religious significance to the devotees of Lord Krishna and the entire state of Odisha.
The Supreme court has now allowed the Rath Yatra, observing strict conditions. It clarified that the yatra would not take place at the cost of people’s health. Several guidelines were issued by the court covering all the aspects regarding social distancing and prevention of virus being spread.
Restriction on all entry points, the imposition of a strict curfew on days of the yatra, and similar measures were imposed. The court fixed the number of people pulling the chariot, i.e. 500, the interval between processions (1 hour), and all the other important details. Strict orders to make sure that people participating should be tested for coronavirus have been passed. Any infected person will not be allowed to participate in the whole festival. Social distancing has also been made compulsory at all times.
Moreover, the presence of only people required for the festival to take place smoothly has been ordered with emphasis on having as few people as possible. The liability for any breach or problems caused would lie with the Temple Administration Board. A record containing names of participants along with medical history will have to be maintained before the festival takes place.
The hearing on this stay was initially scheduled before the bench of Justice Arun Mishra. However, the bench comprising of Chief Justice Bobde, Justice Maheshwari, and Justice Bopanna adjudicated the matter. The bench also allowed the state government to stop the festival if a public health emergency arises. The Solicitor General, Advocate Tushar Mehta, said that the union government would provide as much help as they could and whole-heartedly supported the festival.
Senior Advocate Ranjit Kumar on behalf of the original petitioner Odisha Vikas Parishad, expressed apprehension over the rising number of cases in the state while pointing out that the whole festival would take around 10-12 days to finish. The Jagannath Sanskriti Jana Jagran Manch moved the application on modification of the stay on the grounds that the petitioner held material facts from the court and did not inform of the requisite measures which were supposed to be taken for public safety.
The High Court of Odisha had imposed a complete stay on the festival on the petitioner’s apprehension on 9th June 2020. With this order passed by the Supreme Court, the power now rests with the State government to make sure everything is consistent with the guidelines with which the festival is being allowed to take place.
It was pointed out that all the 800 servitors had undergone the COVID-19 test and were all found negative. They were also in isolation for more than one month. While the festival usually is observed by thousands of devotees, this year, the state had imposed Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code of 1973.
The yatra was allowed keeping in mind the public sentiment since this practice is being carried out since time immemorial. On 18th June 2020, the court ordered a complete ban on the Rath Yatra. Agreeing to Senior Advocate Mukul Rohatgi's submissions that allowing the Yatra would lead to a "catastrophic" situation, a bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde had ordered that the Chariot festival which attracts a congregation of nearly 10 lakh people in Bhubaneswar shall not be allowed in the interest of public health and safety of citizens.
Initially, the bench headed by Chief Justice Bobde imposed injunctions on all activities related to the Yatra. Senior Advocate Harish Salve appearing on behalf of the state, also suggested it would be better to stop the festivities.