With Patnaik giving up, only Lord Jagannath can save the massive Nabakalebara Rath Yatra

With less than 24 hours left for the millennium’s first Nabakalebara Rath Yatra, the Naveen Patnaik government appears to have thrown up its hands – as much in despair as in supplication to Lord Jagannath – hoping against hope that this mega religious festival that is taking place in Odisha’s holy town of Puri after 19 years passes off without a hitch.

Sandeep Sahu July 17, 2015 18:32:46 IST
With Patnaik giving up, only Lord Jagannath can save the massive Nabakalebara Rath Yatra

Bhubaneswar: With less than 24 hours left for the millennium’s first Nabakalebara Rath Yatra, the Naveen Patnaik government appears to have thrown up its hands – as much in despair as in supplication to Lord Jagannath – hoping against hope that this mega religious festival that is taking place in Odisha’s holy town of Puri after 19 years passes off without a hitch.

There is a sound basis to the government’s apprehensions. Everything that could have gone wrong in the run up to this big event has gone wrong so far. Right from 29 March, when the search for the ‘darus’ (neem trees from which the new idols of Lord Jagannath and His siblings are carved) began, the holy Nabakalbara has been dogged by controversies of the most unholy kind, culminating in a complete mess during ‘brahma parivartan’ (the transfer of the ‘soul’ of the deities to the new idols) last month.

With Patnaik giving up only Lord Jagannath can save the massive Nabakalebara Rath Yatra

Representational image. AFP

But right now, the elaborate and intricate set of rituals connected with the Nabakalebara is the last thing the government is worried about. What is giving it sleepless nights is the gross infrastructural under preparedness. Not one of the projects specially undertaken for Nabakalebara is 100 percent complete. Even as you read this, finishing touches are being given to road construction work. Heaps of earth and garbage lie on the roadside in many parts of the town, including the all-important Bada Danda (Grand Road) on which the Raths (chariots) would roll out tomorrow. Sewerage work is still underway while drains are overflowing at many places. Drinking water provision is yet to be made in the 32 Nabakelbara villages set up to accommodate the lakhs of devotees.

With a crowd of three million expected to throng the pilgrim town — many of them have already arrived — for the grand festival, there is clearly a lot that can go wrong. And with the weatherman predicting rains on the day of the Rath Yatra under the influence of a cyclonic circulation formed over the Bay of Bengal, the worst nightmares appear to be coming true.

An hour and half of low pressure induced rains last week gave a taste of how bad things can get if it rains. With two-foot deep water accumulating on the ground, the Grand Road resembled a river. It took several hours to pump out the accumulated water at the Hospital Square, the entry point of the town. Jokes did the rounds on the social media about why the government needs to make provision for boats – rather than buses, trains and aeroplanes – to ferry devotees to Puri!

Wisened by the experience, the administration was a little more prepared when it rained again on Thursday evening. Even as it rained, Soumendra Priyadarshi, the senior IPS appointed officer on special duty (OSD) for the Nabakelbara, was seen supervising the pumping out of the accumulated water. But if it rains again on D-day as the Met department has predicted, there is not much that Priyadarshi and his men can do because the Bada Danda would be choc-a-bloc with devotees.

With tests of randomly collected water samples from various points in the town, including some of the leading hotels, dubbing nearly two-fifths of them as ‘unfit for human consumption’, a health disaster is staring the administration hard in the face.

Having realised at least a month ago that almost all infrastructural projects are hopelessly behind schedule, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik deputed as many as five ministers and dozens of IAS officers to expedite work. But by then, things had reached a point from where it was impossible to meet the deadline. The ‘deadline’ itself has kept shifting with each ‘high level review meeting’ conducted by the Chief Minister, his ministers and top bureaucrats — from March to April, and then June and finally 15 July, two days before the Rath Yatra. “Work will carry on till late tonight,” Puri based journalist Chinmay Pati told Firstpost on Friday, only half in jest.

Nothing gives a better idea of the casual manner in which the government has approached the task of putting in place the necessary infrastructure ahead of the mega festival than the state of the much touted Nabakalebara Road – also called the New Jagannath Sadak — connecting Bhubaneswar with Puri. Scheduled to be completed well before Nabakalebara, work on this four-lane is still on at many places, particularly at places where flyovers are coming up.

No more than 30 percent of the work on the much touted underground sewerage system, the first of its kind project in the state originally scheduled to be completed by 2004 (yes, you heard that right!) is complete. As a wag commented, work on the project could still be on when the next Nabakalebara comes up in 12-19 years’ time!

The more one thinks of it, the more one is reminded of the utter mess that the 2010 Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Delhi turned out to be in terms of infrastructural preparedness. But at the end of it all, there was at least the consolation of a bagful of medals for Indian athletes to take comfort from. Unfortunately for the Naveen Patnaik government, no medals are up for grabs at the end of this Nabakalebara, which could well go down as the worst organised in a century.

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