Suman Khatri is all smiles after returning from a pilgrimage to the Mahakaleshwar temple in Ujjain earlier this month.
Hoping to get the blessings of the Almighty, Suman and her husband Ramesh, who live with their two sons and their wives in a three-storied house in Kalyanpuri, East Delhi, availed of the free pilgrimage scheme of the Delhi government, the Mukhyamantri Tirth Yatra Yojana.
“We had nothing at all to worry about when we went to Ujjain.
The Delhi government took care of our lodging and transportation. We had wished to go there for a long time.
The process of applying for the scheme is also simple, and officials help you with the necessary details. The chief minister definitely knows how to win hearts,” said 61-year-old Suman.
The Mukhyamantri Tirth Yatra Yojana was launched on December 5, 2018.
However, the first train under the scheme, to Amritsar, was flagged off by Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal only on July 12, 2019.
Since then 11,500 senior citizens have gone on pilgrimage free of cost.
Under the Tirth Yatra Yojana, every year, 1,100 senior citizens from each Assembly constituency in Delhi can go on a pilgrimage sponsored by the Delhi government.
“Our government respects elders and senior citizens. No society or country can progress until and unless it gives respects to its senior citizens.
We just need the blessings of our elders. This scheme is very close to my heart.
Every senior citizen has the desire to go on a pilgrimage at least once. We are happy that we have had the good fortune of fulfilling your wish.
I will help all the senior citizens visit pilgrimage places,” Chief Minister Kejriwal had said during the launch of the scheme.
The scheme has been a hit with senior citizens in the national capital. Under it, the government bears the expenses of the travellers, including the cost of travel in an air-conditioned train, accommodation, meals, and other expenses.
Recently, the Delhi government decided to expand the scheme and added seven routes to take the total number of predetermined routes on offer to 11.
In the latest additions, the longest route is Delhi-Rameshwaram-Madurai-Delhi, which takes eight days and has become one of the most popular routes, according to officials in the tourism department.
After its launch, the scheme was halted in the month of August, according to officials involved in its implementation.
The trips were halted after provisions of Article 370 were withdrawn from Jammu and Kashmir and following floods in many parts of the country, due to which the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation, a subsidiary of the Indian Railways that handles the catering, tourism and online ticketing operations of the latter, cancelled trains on several pilgrimage routes.
The trips resumed in September, with more than 2,000 senior citizens travelling in that month.
Any citizen from the national capital who is aged 60 years or more can avail of the scheme after acquiring a certificate from their local MLA stating that they live in the legislator’s constituency.
One attendant aged 21 years or more can accompany each traveller. It is usually couples who avail of the scheme, but single travellers also go on the pilgrimages and can take an attendant with them.
While the Khatri family is well off, with Ramesh owning a shop in Lajpat Nagar until a few years ago and both their sons working in multinational companies, 60-year-old Sudharshan Prasad, who lives in a jhuggi cluster in Kondli, also went to Ujjain.
Before he retired, Prasad worked as a security guard at Gandhi Darshan. Hailing from Bihar, he said he had been to many places outside Delhi, adding that he now sees CM Kejriwal as his “son”.
“Me and my wife (Dhupwati Devi) had a lot of fun” said Prasad, with a smile on his face.
“We both had discussed visiting Mahakaleshwar temple and the nearby areas many times over the years, but somehow it did not happen. I got to know about the scheme through the local leaders, and after that we both applied for it,” said Prasad, whose grandson works for the ruling Aam Aadmi Party’s councillor in Kalyanpuri, Kuldeep Kumar.
“Many senior citizens are surprised that every expense will be taken care of by the government. We are seeing a huge rush and demand for the pilgrimage scheme,” said Kumar.
“We facilitate the form filling process of the elders and send the forms to the online forum, from where they are picked up by the tourism department for further processing. Senior citizens should be cared for with a lot of dignity and love, and there is nothing more pious for us than to help put a smile on their faces, which we have seen after they return from the trips,” Kumar added.
Officials on the way to destination the travellers in return are provided with an umbrella, handbag and a Tulsi Mala for keeping,
After the department goes through every application, also checking the medical records of the applicants in order to see whether they are fit to travel, the applicants are informed of the approval of their application through a message sent to their mobile phone.
The elders get an air-conditioned DTC bus from their assembly constituency to Safdarjung railway station, from where the trains running under the scheme depart.
The senior citizens taking the trips are provided an identity card, and some of the pilgrims said that AAP workers also travel along with the groups to manage everything.
“I went with an old couple under the Tirth Yatra Yojana. The planning and implementation of the programme by the government are very good. After the visit, the elders are really happy and have good wishes for the Kejriwal government, said Rishabh, an attendant who was part of one of the pilgrimage groups.
“After the senior citizens return from the tour, they tell others about the arrangements, and that creates a desire among more people to go on the pilgrimages,” Rishabh added.
Krishna, another such attendant, said, “In all the places we went to, our hotels were situated within walking distance of the shrine or temple where the elders wanted to go, so there was no need to spend money on transportation.”
“Each couple had a separate room to themselves and buffet meals were available at community halls, “ Krishna added.