At a time when states in India are contemplating extending the period of lockdown, the “lack of seriousness” and “casual approach” adopted by the Mamata Banerjee-led West Bengal government to handle the coronavirus crisis have made Central government officials and health experts worry about which way things are headed in the state.
The decision by the Mamata Banerjee government to open fully the state’s flower markets, partially open the biri (tobacco) markets, open 200 plus tea gardens in North Bengal and start staggered taxi services, have raised questions about the approach being taken by the Bengal government to fight this deadly virus.
A senior Central government officer monitoring the developments, told The Sunday Guardian, “The West Bengal government is either not understanding the seriousness of the pandemic or Mamata Banerjee does not want to understand. She is prioritising economy over life; as a guardian of the state, how can a Chief Minister do that? The flower markets in Bengal are crowded where people from across the state assemble to conduct business. This is surely going to turn into a major hotspot in the country. The infection is going to be carried to the rural areas and then there will be no stopping. The Union Health Ministry has been advising and issuing guidelines to the state every now and then, but in vain.”
Local media reports from the wholesale flower market in Kolkata show a grim picture, with social distancing nowhere visible. Buyers and sellers at the market are not adhering to the advisory of wearing masks, nor are police personnel present there to ensure that these measures are strictly followed.
Even as experts, doctors and epidemiologists insist on social distancing and lockdown being the “only way to fight coronavirus” as of now, in West Bengal lockdown orders and advisories are being clearly flouted with many non-essential goods shops being opened in several semi-urban and rural areas.
Common people are flooding the streets, making their regular visits to the fish market without adhering to the norms of social distancing. Small vegetable markets in many parts of the state are flooded with people moving around freely without masks. Many people are also going out on regular walks and are meeting friends. Even the tea shops are attracting large crowds, especially in the morning and evening for regular “adda” sessions (chat sessions). The Bengal administration is doing little to ensure that the lockdown and norms of social distancing are followed.
In fact, on Friday, it came to light that a mass religious gathering was taking place at a mosque in Murshidabad district. According to sources in Murshidabad, more than 100 people had gathered at the mosque to offer Friday prayers. It was only after the locals alerted the police, that the crowd was dispersed.
Sources say that such religious gatherings are a regular affair in many parts of Bengal and every Friday, hundreds assemble at their local mosques to offer namaz and this was only one such incident which got highlighted.
This has led to serious questions being raised not only by many people in Bengal, but also by several state police officers who say that the Chief Minister has “left the people of Bengal to die” by not enforcing the lockdown strictly.
The police officers, who were strictly enforcing the lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 24 March, allegedly were reprimanded by Chief Minister Banerjee who is also the Home Minister of Bengal, for enforcing the lockdown strictly. Allegedly, Mamata Banerjee had taken strong action against some police officials and had immediately relieved them from their duty and sent them to the police lines.
A police officer from Bengal told The Sunday Guardian on the condition of anonymity, “When the lockdown was announced, we understood the gravity of the situation and were ensuring that no one left their houses. But because some visuals were being shown on television where police had to resort to force to ensure that people adhered to the orders, the CM took strong action, after which we decided not to act. Many people who do not care for their lives are still roaming on the streets, many non-essential shops are open, but we are not telling them anything. Why should we face the ire of the CM? If the Chief Minister does not care for her own people, why should we? We have left it.”
The police officer further added, “We were doing it for the good of the people. They should understand this. We are not keeping them indoors for any other reason, but only to save them and their families.”
However, some local Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaders that The Sunday Guardian spoke to said that the police could not use force or beat up people to make them stay inside.
“The government is issuing advisories and people are seeing that on TV and in newspapers; so I am sure they understand the seriousness of the situation. We cannot let the police beat them up for coming out to buy something. The Chief Minister herself from time to time is telling the police to go slow, because we also have to understand that people have to earn their livelihoods. Some areas are letting many shops to open for some time in the morning and evening, which is helping these shopkeepers earn some money. The local MLAs have instructed their local police stations not to use force against anybody in the state,” a Trinamool Congress leader told this newspaper.
The West Bengal government is also receiving criticism from several quarters over the lack of transparency in releasing the “actual” number of patients affected and the number of deaths due to the deadly coronavirus.
The West Bengal government and its Health Department, which is again headed by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, had stopped the release of the regular health bulletin after 1 April.
For two consecutive days—2 and 3 April—there were no health bulletins; it was only on 4 April that the government released an official health bulletin after a lot of pressure and criticism from the media.
It must also be noted here that the cases related to the Tablighi Jamaat came to the forefront on the late night of 31 March and by 1 April, several Tablighi Jamaatis were identified to be in Bengal. The Tablighi Jamaat had become the largest cluster outbreak in the country and since then, it has become a priority task for all other state governments to track and quarantine them.
However, during a press conference in Nabbana, the Bengal government’s secretariat, Mamata Banerjee refused to take questions and divulge information on the number of Jamaatis identified in her state in the first week of April. The CM also refused to share any update on the contact tracing of the Tablighi Jamaatis, by saying, “Don’t ask communal questions.”
However, on 3 April, the Health Department released an order stating that an expert committee had been formed to conduct an “audit” of the suspected deaths due to Covid-19. The order read, “The committee will examine the BHT, treatment history, investigation reports, death certificates, or any other documents as may be deemed necessary for ascertaining the cause of death of a patient who has tested Covid-19 positive.”
This expert committee of five doctors created by the Bengal government would give the final word on whether to ascertain a death to Covid-19 or to the other co-morbidities that a Covid-19 patient must be having.
The West Bengal government had also not released the number of deaths related to Covid-19 on 4 and 6 April. The state government did not release its daily health bulletin on 5 April as well.
On 7 April, the government reported that five had died because of Covid-19.
Questions have also been raised over discrepancies in the number of Covid-19 patients’ list being released by the state government and the one by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
The number of positive Covid-19 cases given out by the Bengal government on 10 April was 89, while the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare states that total number of positive Covid-19 cases in Bengal is 116.
Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, while addressing the media through video conferencing on Friday, hinted that some states were “under-reporting” Covid-19 cases. Dr Harsh Vardhan said, “There are some states that are hiding or under-reporting the data. I urge all the states to come forward together as a country to fight this deadly virus.”
INSTRUCTIONS FROM CENTRE
Taking strong cognizance of the rampant violation of lockdown orders of the Government of India, the Ministry of Home Affairs wrote a letter to the Chief Secretary and the Director General of Police, West Bengal, on Friday. In its letter, the MHA wrote, “Gradual dilution of lockdown has been reported from West Bengal, with an increase in the number of exceptions being provided by the state government. For instance, shops relating to non-essential items have been allowed to function. There is no regulation in vegetable, fish and mutton markets where people have been thronging in complete violation of the social distancing norms…police have been allowing religious congregation…”
The MHA has further asked the state government to take strict action in the matter. “It is requested that strict action be taken in the matter and a report on this matter be furnished to the ministry urgently,” the MHA wrote.
NON-COOPERATION WITH CENTRAL GOVERNMENT
Allegations have also been levelled against the Mamata Banerjee government over non-cooperation of the Bengal government with the Central government.
Chief Minister Banerjee had earlier skipped the meeting called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 2 April to discuss the way ahead in the fight against Covid-19, giving her first indication of non-cooperation with the Central government.
However, the second round of meeting with the Chief Ministers held by the Prime Minister was attended by Banerjee. Her decision to attend the meeting this time, sources close to her said, was on the advice of Prashant Kishor.
Sources further said that Prashant Kishor has advised Mamata Banerjee to “correct her image” which was being negatively portrayed by the media for her throwing fits at a time when all other states were fighting like one nation, keeping their political ideologies aside.
Central government officials have also concerns about Bengal government officials not responding to calls and notices given the Union Health Ministry and the Union government.
According to a tweet put out by Rajya Sabha member from West Bengal, Swapan Dasgupta, some district magistrates and other district officials have been “unofficially” asked by the West Bengal administration not to respond to queries or messages from Government of India officials and any official seeking query on health-related matters should be asked to contact the Principal Secretary, Health.
The Prime Minister’s Office too has taken strong exception to the video leaked by the Trinamool Congress. The video, which was recorded by the TMC while the Prime Minister was having a conversation over video conferencing with floor leaders of Parliament from different parties, was leaked to the media by the TMC. Sudip Bandopadhyay, Lok Sabha member from TMC, was attending the meeting called by the Prime Minister.
The Mamata Banerjee government had also rejected the PPE kits sent by the Central government over the “choice of colour”, according to several media reports.
The Sunday Guardian tried contacting Bengal’s Health Department officials to get an official reply to these allegations, but did not get a reply.