Kolkata: Three of the seven districts in West Bengal, which were identified as “serious” by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), didn’t report any new positive cases of coronavirus in the last few days, according to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
These three districts are Kalimpong, Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri.
In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi Monday, Banerjee stated that Kalimpong reported the last case of infection on 2 April, Jalpaiguri on 4 April and Darjeeling on 16 April. The letter has been accessed by ThePrint.
However, at a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha said a few more cases were reported from Siliguri, which is in Darjeeling district. But he didn’t specify the exact number of cases or when they emerged.
Besides these three districts, the remaining locations that the home ministry called “hotspots and emerging hot spots” were Kolkata, Howrah, North 24 Parganas and East Midnapore.
The central government, however, did not clarify or give any data or figures on why the seven districts were identified as “serious”.
The categorisation of these districts led to a political slugfest between the Centre and the state as two inter-ministerial central teams (IMCT) that arrived in Bengal Monday to assess the coronavirus situation and lockdown measures in those areas were not allowed to visit any part of the state until Tuesday.
Late Tuesday evening, the state government finally allowed one of the teams to visit parts of Kolkata for inspection.
According to the state health department’s official data, there were 274 active cases in Bengal as of Tuesday night — 73 cured/discharged and 15 dead. But according to the Union health ministry, Bengal has 423 confirmed cases as of Wednesday afternoon.
The West Bengal government has not officially put out district-wise break up for coronavirus cases yet. It has only been releasing the total number of positive cases in the state, the number of discharged and death figures approved by an audit committee.
ThePrint spoke to the respective district administration officials to get the figures, as of Wednesday.
Kalimpong & Jalpaiguri
In the last week of March, Kalimpong recorded 11 positive cases — nine from a single family. Following this, the area from where the cases were reported was declared a cluster in North Bengal.
Of the 11, the first person who was infected with the virus died in North Bengal Medical College in Siliguri. After her death, many health professionals in the hospital were quarantined, while the deputy superintendent and his associate tested positive.
According to sources in the state health department, around 4 to 5 people tested positive in the same area in March-end, and all of them were isolated and treated.
Anit Thapa, chairman of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), told ThePrint the flip-flop by the central government, and the gap between state and the Centre have left them “confused”, which is least required while fighting a pandemic. Kalimpong comes under the GTA.
“On 28 March, a resident of Kalimpong who had travelled to Chennai for a personal visit was detected positive for Covid-19. Unfortunately, we lost her to the pandemic on 30 March,” said Thapa.
“This created unprecedented panic and anxiety in Kalimpong. During her stay in Kalimpong, she (the deceased) had interacted with doctors, family members and a few others. We had to quickly put all those people under quarantine as per the directions of the government,” he added.
“On 18 April, it was declared by the joint secretary, health ministry, that in the last 14 days (since 4 April), there had been no case of coronavirus from Kalimpong,” he said.
But now that the Union government has sent a team to Kalimpong and Darjeeling, Thapa said he is “deeply concerned and distressed”.
“We are now totally confused and do not know whom to trust and what rules to comply with,” he added.
In Jalpaiguri, the last positive case was reported on 4 April.
Darjeeling district comprises both hills and plains. The hilly areas come under the GTA and has not recorded any cases so far.
According to the CM’s letter to PM Modi Monday, the Siliguri sub-division in the plains registered the last case on 16 April.
Before 16 April, there were 3-4 positive cases in Siliguri, said a district administration official.
A home ministry letter dated 19 April to the Bengal government flagged issues related to lockdown violations in Darjeeling.
Some incidents of lockdown violations were reported from Siliguri and videos of overcrowding at local markets also emerged on social media.
A source in the state government said, at least 90 per cent of the total cases in Bengal were reported from Kolkata and Howrah — two adjoining districts.
Of the total cases in the state, 133 are from Kolkata as of Wednesday, of whom at least seven have died, said the source.
The cause of the deaths is, however, yet to be ascertained as the audit committee, formed to decide whether a Covid-19 patient has died due to the disease, hasn’t confirmed it so far.
Kolkata comes under the red zone, and it has many hotspots and containment zones.
Around 60 positive cases have been reported so far from Howrah district.
Of these cases, at least 2 to 3 people died, a district administration official said. But the cause of death is yet to be ascertained.
Howrah has been identified as a red zone, and it also has several hotspots and containment zones. Most of the localities in Howrah district have been sealed and no industrial units are allowed to operate there.
North 24 Parganas
One of the largest districts in Bengal, North 24 Parganas has two commissionerates — Barrackpore Commissionerate and Bidhannagar Commissionerate.
District officials said areas under the Barrackpore Commissionerate have seen at least 18 cases so far, while Bidhannagar Commissionerate areas have around a dozen cases.
Five in Barrackpore have died while around 3 to 4 died in Bidhannagar, officials added.
East Midnapore district
East Midnapore reported six positive cases in March-end and in the beginning of April, including a case in Haldia that was linked to the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi, a district administration official said.
The chief minister declared the district an orange zone last week as infection was contained to some extent. But, it was again brought under red zone after a fresh case was reported on 19 April.
“Since 11 April, we didn’t get any fresh cases from East Midnapore, but on 19 April, we got one. So East Midnapore is again a red zone now,” chief secretary Sinha said Tuesday.
The coronavirus pandemic seems to have become the latest flashpoint in the already-strained ties between the Mamata Banerjee government and the Modi dispensation.
Members of the two central teams — one for North Bengal and the other for South Bengal — that were initially not allowed to visit any part of Bengal said the state government didn’t provide any support to carry out assessment.
“We came here yesterday (Monday) and our order of deployment also says that the state government is to provide logistic support to us. I have been in touch with the chief secretary since yesterday and since the time I landed here, I am seeking support from the state government to visit the affected areas,” said Apurba Chandra, a senior member of an IMCT team, Tuesday.
The MHA also said the Bengal government isn’t cooperating with the central teams and are restraining them from interacting with health workers and touring the affected areas.
Home Ministry Joint Secretary Punya Salila Srivastava also raised the issue at the daily media briefing Tuesday.
A second government source said the central teams have asked for logistical help from the central forces, the BSF and SSB, to tour the affected areas in the state.
The source further told ThePrint the central teams weren’t allowed to tour the state as the respective district administrations were not informed.
Cooperate with central teams: Governor
In the wake of the war of words between the state government and the Centre, Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar requested Banerjee to “synergetically” cooperate with the central team.
“My request to CM MB to synergetically cooperate with the Central Team @PMOIndia to wean away the miseries of people,” he tweeted.
My appeal to all: Support government @MamataOfficial to contain and combat corona curse.
My request to CM MB to synergetically cooperate with the Central Team @PMOIndia to wean away the miseries of people.
Cooperation and not confrontation between Centre and State must.
— Governor West Bengal Jagdeep Dhankhar (@jdhankhar1) April 21, 2020
State BJP president Dilip Ghosh said the state government is hiding information.
“I wrote to the Union home ministry and Union health minister about the miserable situation. We also submitted a memorandum to the state Governor. He in turn also wrote to the central ministries. Moreover, the country is now under the NDMA (National Disaster Management Authority) and the Centre can inspect places,” he said.
“Banerjee always wants to block all sorts of central visits. It is not new, it happened every time,” he claimed.
Banerjee has been repeatedly saying that the state government was kept in the dark about the central teams’ visit to Bengal.
Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’ Brien Tuesday echoed the chief minister and said the government was not consulted before the teams landed in the state and it is against the federal structure of the country.
But a central government source said the Centre is “empowered to send teams during a disaster under the NDMA… It is simply to assist the states”.
“The (Covid-19) testing rate in West Bengal has been very low in comparison to the national average… and they have remained somewhat opaque in their dealing with the epidemic,” added the source.
With inputs from Sanya Dhingra