Devbrat Patnaik

Puri: Even as the Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) in Puri has claimed of decent Covid safety measures in place, the mandatory protocol set by the temple body for devotees seems to have ultimately made the 12th-century shrine a restricted zone for many.

On January 3, the day the Puri Jagannath Temple was thrown open for public, thousands of devotees rushed to catch a glimpse of the Holy Trinity. However, scenes were quite contrary on January 5, as Badadanda wore a deserted look.

It was observed that very few devotees turned up to seek blessings of Mahaprabhu Jagannath and His siblings, thanks to the SJTA guidelines seeking a Covid negative report from all devotees visiting the shrine.

With the mandatory Covid negative report rule in place, many devotees preferred darshan of Patitapabana, rather than offering prayers at Ratna Singhasana.

A devotee from Nayagarh who had come along with family and was deprived of darshan of the Lords said, "Where do we get us tested? It is not conducted for free anywhere. We are hurt, but we've no option other than having a darshan of Patitapabana."

Even Odisha Governor Ganeshi Lal could not enter the temple and had to offer prayers from outside as he did not have the mandatory Covid negative report.

"Based on SOPs finalised, a Covid negative report is made compulsory for all devotees to gain access to Srimandir, and those who are non-residents of Puri should get themselves tested at their respective local hospitals and avail a negative report. This has however reduced the footfall to some extent," SJTA administrator (development) Ajay Kumar Jena said.

For many persons coming to the pilgrim town with family, not only is Covid testing a frantic job, but it is also burning holes in their pockets.

The State government last month re-fixed the maximum cost for Rapid Antigen Test conducted by private labs in Odisha at Rs 100 (inclusive of GST), and an order in this regard was also issued by H&FW department on December 21, 2020.

Throwing government orders to the wind, the only private lab open for conducting tests of devotees who do not have a negative report is allegedly profiteering in the name of antigen test by charging high fees, probably four times the rate fixed by the government.

With no testing facilities at the Puri district headquarters hospital for visitors or pilgrims, they are now a distressed lot.

A devotee belonging to Kolkata said, "We went to the government hospital, but there's no facility for us there. Then we came to the private lab for testing, we will collect the reports and visit Srimandir. They have charged Rs 400 for Covid test."

In response, Ipsita Mishra, the Director of e-24 lab said, "The government has fixed the rate at Rs 100, but no private lab follows this or can follow and there are reasons aplenty. The kits alone cost us Rs 112. Plus there are people engaged for portals, collecting samples, they wear PPE kits. How do we get the extra charges used for these persons or additional equipment being used?"

Dr Sujata Mishra, the Puri CDMO stated that the government hospital is not testing tourists or pilgrims. "The only lab that is authorised for Covid testing is e-24, and it charges Rs 400 for the same. I had also conducted an enquiry on this. And in case any fresh norms are made for tourists, we will definitely follow that."

Before temple-unlock, the administration had expected a congregation of at least 15000 to 17000 devotees. However on the first day of reopening, the number stood at just over 4500 and the abode of Lord Jagannath constantly witnessed a slump in turnout of devotees thereafter.