With cases of COVID-19 rising in Tirupati, employees of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) have called for temporarily closing the shrine situated atop Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh. The Tirumala temple was reopened on June 11, after remaining shut for around 80 days. So far, at least 91 TTD staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Representatives of the TTD Staff and Workers United Front, affiliated to the CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions), wrote to TTD Executive Officer Anil Kumar Singhal on Wednesday, asking that darshan at the temple be temporarily suspended, and to conduct rituals in private, as they were done during the lockdown.
â€śAs the pandemic escalates rapidly, more than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 have been registered in Tirupati. While TTD is already taking various precautions and allowing devotees to have darshan â€¦ since the spread of the virus is more severe in Tirupati, around 100 employees staying in the town have already been infected. These employees could end up infecting devotees when they go up the hill to Tirumala to perform duties. In this context, employees are all very worried,â€ť the union wrote.
Apart from temporarily suspending darshan, the union has also asked the TTD to allow employees performing duties at Tirumala to work in shifts, so that 33% of employees are working on any given day. For contract employees and outsourced staff working in Tirupati, the union has suggested that 50% of them be asked to attend duties in a day. They also asked for those who can work from home to be allowed to do so.
The union has also asked for accommodation facilities with nutritious food as per government quarantine guidelines, for family members of employees, outsourced staff and pensioners who contract COVID-19.
The number of pilgrims visiting Tirumala had earlier been capped at 6,000 per day by the TTD, and was later increased to 12,000. A release from the TTD issued on Sunday stated that around 2.5 lakh pilgrims had visited between June 11, the day of reopening, and July 10.
According to Chittoor District Medical and Health Officer (DMHO) Dr Penchalaiah, around 3,000 samples from pilgrims have been tested for coronavirus so far, and all of them were negative. â€śWe are testing around 100 to 150 pilgrims at random, and 100 to 200 TTD employees, in one day. Pilgrims are being tested at the foot of the hills, in Alipiri itself. In a bus, four people are picked at random. In a car, one person may be tested. So far, none of the pilgrims have tested positive,â€ť he said.
Yet, rising infections in Tirupati has left the workersâ€™ union concerned.
â€śThere are thousands of people visiting every day. There is no question of none of the pilgrims being infected,â€ť says Kandarapu Murali, CITU General Secretary, Chittoor district, adding that there is fear among many TTD workers and people in the city that pilgrims visiting from various places might escalate the spread of the virus among local residents.
BKSR Ayyangar, an activist who has been working to bring the TTD under the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, says, â€śOf course all devotees want darshan of the deity and authorities want to facilitate this, which can be understood. But, allowing so many people is definitely a risk. Yet, testing all devotees before allowing them inside is not feasible. In such a situation, it is better to close the temple until the situation is under control,â€ť he said.
On Tuesday, the outpatient facility at Sri Venkateswara Institute of Medical Sciences (SVIMS), the nodal COVID-19 hospital for Chittoor district located in Tirupati was shut for four days, after 40 staff members tested positive for coronavirus in the past week.
Meanwhile, the Srisailam temple in Kurnool district has been closed temporarily starting from Wednesday, after nearly 30 people, including temple staff and family members tested positive for the coronavirus.
Watch: Tirumala reopened for public on June 11 after 80 days