Amid a surge in Covid-19 cases, a cloud of uncertainty hovers over Bohag Bihu or Rongali Bihu celebrations in Assam. The biggest festival in the state, which marks start of the Assamese New Year, begins this week.
Bohag Bihu starts in mid-April and goes on for seven days, but cultural events, spread over two-three days, are organised in most major localities across the Brahmaputra , and continue for a month or so.
Last year, the Covid-induced lockdown put a lid on cultural events which usually witness major performing artists and Bihu dance groups holding shows. With assembly elections getting over last week, the state government decided to allow celebrations this year, but with restrictions in place.
As per the standard operating procedures (SOPs) issued on Friday require organisers of events to seek permission from local authorities and mention how many people are expected to take part. All organisers and volunteers will have to get themselves tested for Covid-19 three days prior to and also after the event.
The event sites should be spacious, kept open from all sides with adequate space for social distancing. There should be multiple entry and exit points and all visitors screened for fever. Use of face mask is mandatory and organisers will have to arrange for hand sanitisers.
All functions, which usually continue till early mornings, will have to be wrapped by 11pm and the venues will have to be sanitised twice — once before the event and again, after it is over.
The guidelines haven’t gone down well with many Bihu organisers who have blamed to government for issuing them late, putting the entire burden of Covid-19 guidelines’ management on them. They have also questioned why such measures were not in place when campaigning for polls was underway barely days ago.
“We had completed nearly 80% of work on conducting the functions, but the SOPs were issued this late and without consulting any organisers. We have reservations against several of the guidelines,” Pranab Goswami, general secretary of Sodou Asom Bihu Sanmilani Samanway Rakshi Samiti, the apex body of Bihu event organisers, told journalists on Sunday.
“It won’t be possible to conduct Covid-19 tests of all organisers and volunteers so close to the functions. If that is forced on us, Bihu functions won’t be held. The time limit of 11pm also needs to be extended till 1am since most major artists take to the stage late at night,” he added.
Members of Bihu organising committees in Guwahati also held a protest on Sunday, urging the authorities to either revoke the SOPs or alter some of the guidelines.
The state government explained its stand. “There’s no lockdown or night curfew planned in Assam and we have even allowed Bihu celebrations even as some states have enforced night curfews. But we will be criticised [for laxity] if we allowed functions throughout the night,” health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said on Sunday.
“We have allowed Bihu celebrations as a challenge this time. Organisers and performing artists should appreciate the government’s stand. If I allow Bihu functions to continue throughout the night, the Central government will issue directives to put an end to all celebrations,” he added.
Daily Covid-19 cases in Assam were down to single digits in March but the number shot up this month with Sunday recording 352 new cases. Currently, there are 1,902 active Covid-19 cases in the state.