Kolkata: The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has once again written to the West Bengal government, its third such letter in eight days, pulling up the Mamata Banerjee administration over its handling of the lockdown and the Covid-19 crisis in the state.
In its latest communication, the MHA has stated that it would be sending two Inter Ministerial Central Teams (IMCTs) to seven locations in the state where the situation, according to the letter, is “serious”.
The letter dated 19 April names the districts of Kolkata, Howrah, North 24 Parganas, East Midnapore, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Jalpaiguri as Covid-19 “hotspots and emerging hot spots” that pose serious health hazards “not only for the population living in these areas but for people living in other areas of the country”.
It adds that the five-member IMCT teams will visit the locations in the next two to three days.
The letter, however, provoked a strong reaction from Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who said she won’t allow the teams in unless the central government came clean on the criteria behind naming the seven districts.
“We welcome all constructive support and suggestions, especially from the central government in negating the Covid-19 crisis. However, the basis on which the Centre is proposing to deploy IMCTs in select districts across India including few in WB under Disaster Management Act 2005 is unclear,” she tweeted. “I urge both PM Narendra Modiji and HM Amit Shahji to share the criterion used for this. Until then I am afraid, we would not be able to move ahead on this as without valid reasons this might not be consistent with the spirit of federalism.”
We welcome all constructive support & suggestions, especially from the Central Govt in negating the #Covid19 crisis. However, the basis on which Centre is proposing to deploy IMCTs in select districts across India including few in WB under Disaster Mgmt Act 2005 is unclear.(1/2)
— Mamata Banerjee (@MamataOfficial) April 20, 2020
Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha echoed the chief minister’s remarks.
“We have no idea how the central government decided on the locations. We were never consulted about these places. About Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Kalimpong, I can tell you that we got the last case from Darjeeling on 16 April, from Jalpaiguri on 2 April and from Kalimpong on 19 April,” he told ThePrint. “On what parameters have they selected these spots?”
He added that both the central teams have landed in the state. “The teams landed in Kolkata and Bagdogra airports in 15 minutes of us receiving the orders. I have requested the team for South Bengal to meet me at Nabanna and the North Bengal team to talk to me before they start moving around,” he said. “Without consulting us, if they start moving around the state taking BSF and SSB personnel, we will not allow them to do so. We are fighting against a pandemic not against the Centre.”
‘Situation especially serious in seven districts in Bengal’
The MHA letter lists the seven districts in West Bengal as among those with a number of violations during the lockdown.
“In some districts of the country, a number of violations to the lockdown measures have been reported, posing a serious health hazard and riskier spread of Covid-19 which is against the general interest of the public,” the letter reads. “These violations include incidents of violence on frontline healthcare professionals, complete violations of social distancing norms outside banks, PDS shops and in market places and so on.”
It refers to West Bengal as a state that is particularly responsible for these violations. “If they are allowed to occur without any restraining measures in hotspot districts or emerging hotspots, with large outbreaks or clusters, they pose a serious health hazard both for the population of these districts and for those living in other areas of the country,” the letter adds. “After analysing the prevalence of such violations in major hotspot districts, it is clear to the central government that the situation is especially serious in Kolkata, Howrah, East Midnapore, North 24 Paraganas, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Jalpaiguri districts in West Bengal.”
Spate of letters
Over the past eight days, the ministry of home affairs has written two other letters to West Bengal regarding the state’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
The letters dealt with various issues that include questioning PDS distribution, highlighting dilution of lockdown measures and allowing too many exceptions in the state.
In its first letter, dated 11 April, MHA claimed that the Mamata Banerjee government was allowing too many exceptions to the lockdown. Five of the seven districts it named in the letter have a Muslim majority.
The second letter, dated 13 April, again mentioned lockdown violations and gathering for Friday namaz at a mosque in Murshidabad district last week.
The Centre, however, has not followed up on these letters. It has taken no action even though the state BJP has made a series of allegations including accusing the Mamata government of fudging Covid-19 data, not providing information on the number of deaths, not allowing enough tests and also not releasing bodies in some cases.
Governor ups ante against Mamata government
West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar has also stepped up pressure on the state government.
He has repeatedly alleged that there is ‘malpractice’ in the PDS distribution and testing of samples. His office had written several letters to the chief minister’s office seeking reports on the allegations.
The Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) finally responded to the allegations Sunday. While it is unclear what the state government said, the Governor tweeted that the response was “evasive”.
“The chief secretary’s response was evasive. Interacted with union minister Ram Vilas Paswan only to learn that FCI has always been in readiness. However, the inaction has been at the state level,” he tweeted.
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— Governor West Bengal Jagdeep Dhankhar (@jdhankhar1) April 19, 2020
He had also alleged that the chief minister was ignoring him but last week, the chief secretary called on him while Mamata Banerjee called him.
No end to state-Centre conflict even in pandemic
The Modi government’s run-ins with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, a regular feature since the 2019 elections, have continued even amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
While the Centre has been shooting off letters, Mamata has from the very beginning blamed the Modi government for the crisis, saying it did not close airports on time and delayed imposing a lockdown.
She had earlier blamed the Centre for not sending enough testing kits and then called the central kits “faulty” leading to repeated and confirmatory tests and delay in reports.
Dr. Santanu Sen, a Trinamool Congress MP and former national president of IMA told The Print, “This is purely a political agenda, the Modi government is playing now. We are doing everything possible to fight the Covid battle but the BJP government is unnecessarily bringing politics into this.
“The letters, one after another, are particularly being sent to Mamata Banerjee’s state to malign her image and they are doing to serve their vested political agenda.”
“We have been fighting hard to bring zones from red to orange and then to green. We have also started rapid testing from today,” said Dr Sen, who is actively involved in Mamata’s Covid-19 task force.