West Bengal

Out of control

Print edition : June 19, 2020

A wholesale vegetable market in Kolkata on June 3. People are back on the streets in large numbers with lockdown restrictions on their way out. Photo: Bikas Das/AP

Mamata Banerjee’s recent statements reflect the pressure she is under because of the coronavirus pandemic and the devastation caused by the Amphan cyclone.

WEST BENGAL currently faces a dual crisis that is causing enormous distress to the people of the State. The “extremely severe cyclonic storm” Amphan of May 20, the worst ever natural disaster to hit the State in a long time, came when Bengal was already reeling under the uncontrollable spread of COVID-19. Mamata Banerjee’s government, which has been facing severe criticism for its handling of the pandemic, now finds itself under tremendous pressure with the additional task of reconstruction and rehabilitation and providing relief to lakhs of people in the cyclone aftermath.

The cyclone left 98 dead and affected more than six crore people, destroyed over 10 lakh houses, and damaged over 10.5 lakh hectares of farmland. According to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, the total damage stands at around Rs.1 lakh crore. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 crisis has deepened, exacerbated by the constant flow of migrant workers returning in the Shramik Special trains from across the country, including States where the outbreak has been severe. According to Railway Minister Piyush Goyal, there are over 30 lakh migrant workers from Bengal in the country.

As of June 1, the total number of COVID-positive cases in the State stood at 5,772, including 3,255 active cases. The total number of COVID-positive patients who have died is 333 (including 72 deaths caused by co-morbidities, as declared on April 30).

Trinamool Congress general secretary and State Minister for Education and Parliamentary Affairs Partha Chatterjee said: “There is coronavirus on the one hand and the devastation caused by Amphan on the other. Not in a hundred years has any leader had to deal with a situation like this. Mamata Banerjee is dealing with it putting her own life at risk.”

The State government has released Rs.6,250 crore for relief and restoration work, and the Centre has extended an advance of Rs.1,000 crore. On May 29, Mamata Banerjee announced that five lakh families in nine affected districts would receive Rs.20,000 each directly. However, the State government’s handling of the post-Amphan situation has come in for criticism from the general public, political opponents, and even sections within the ruling party. For more than a week after the cyclone struck, many neighbourhoods in Kolkata and its adjoining areas remained without water and electricity. Fallen trees kept neighbourhoods isolated as the elderly and the sick gasped for relief. Residents in different parts of the city and other affected areas flung aside all norms of social distancing and took to the streets in protest. In several places, people vented their anger on local Trinamool leaders and elected councillors.

Fissures within the ruling party began to surface as top leaders hurled allegations against one another. State Consumer Affairs Minister Sadhan Pandey criticised Minister of Urban Development and Municipal Affairs Firhad Hakim’s failure to deal with the ongoing crisis. “Had there been proper planning, the cyclone crisis could have been handled in a much better way. There was no proper planning. None of us was consulted on how this crisis could be dealt with.... Anyone who fails to perform should resign from his post,” Pandey said. Hakim, who is also Chairman of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation’s Board of Administrators, hit back saying it was easy to criticise from the comfort of an air-conditioned room. Paresh Pal, an influential Trinamool legislator, jumped into the fray with a threat to take out a massive rally against Pandey. An unhealthy competition also seems to have surfaced within the party over relief distribution with serious clashes taking place between different factions. Veteran Congress leader and Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly Abdul Mannan attributed the government’s failure to effectively address the Amphan catastrophe to lack of administrative ability. “The Trinamool government shows neither any democracy in its way of functioning, nor any administrative capability. That is why the failure in dealing with a disaster like Amphan. They know only destructive politics and can do nothing constructive,” he told Frontline.

Spike in cases

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 cases in the State seems to rise inexorably. In the last week of May, the number of cases rose by 1,956. (However, the rate of testing has also increased to well over 9,000 a day.) Mamata Banerjee claimed that the State had got the crisis under control before the Railways started sending back migrant workers in unannounced trains.

“We had brought the disease under control, but the districts that were in the green zone are now registering positive cases… thousands are coming from high-incidence zones. Over five lakh people have already reached Bengal…. We welcome them but we have to strike a balance between that and managing the COVID situation,” she said. The State government and Piyush Goyal have been locked in a war of words for several weeks, with the latter often alleging that the Bengal government was dragging its feet in utilising the Shramik Specials. Mamata Banerjee, on the other hand, has dubbed the Shramik Special trains as “Corona Expresses”.

The return of the migrants is also causing social disturbances. In many places local residents have not allowed them to enter their villages, fearing a spread of the infection. As vicious fights erupted in some places, the Chief Minister blamed the Centre: “You are causing law and order problems in the State.”

Many of the returning migrants, on the other hand, have alleged that the State government had made no provisions for quarantining them and had instead asked them to remain under home quarantine, which they were unable to do as the villagers would not allow them in. Skirmishes and agitations have been breaking out in districts across the State—Birbhum, Bardhaman, North 24 Parganas, Nadia, Hooghly and Howrah.

Many people feel that the State government’s attitude towards migrants prompts hostile behaviour. Ram Chandra Dome, veteran leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and a seven-time Lok Sabha Member from Birbhum district, told Frontline: “The words of those at the helm of a State will obviously impact society. When one is constantly talking of corona entering society because of the migrants and referring to the Shramik trains as Corona Express, is it possible that there will be no repercussions?” He pointed out that a communal campaign was also under way against returning migrants: “It so happens that a large number of the migrants are Muslims, and there is an insidious campaign that Muslims are spreading the disease. These two irrational campaigns are taking place simultaneously in the State instead of any scientific awareness programme,” said Dome.

Many migrants who have managed to make their way back have complained that they received no assistance by way of food or any other kind of relief from the State government after they returned. Some groups of returning migrants are reportedly bearing their own expenses in the quarantine centres. There are also reports of migrants claiming that they have not even been tested on their return. Protests staged by the police over the coronavirus situation mark another trend that is disturbing for the State government. Aggrieved police personnel have alleged that the State government shows no concern for the plight of police personnel who have been at the forefront in the fight against the virus. Protesting police personnel in south Kolkata’s Garfa ransacked their own police station. Violence broke out in the camp of the Calcutta Armed Police on May 29, and at the Police Training School.

Although there were no signs of the pandemic easing in the State, Mamata Banerjee announced further relaxations of lockdown restrictions on May 29. Places of worship were allowed to reopen from June 1 and private and government offices were allowed to resume work with full attendance. Kolkata burst into almost frenzied activity on June 1, with traffic jams taking place all over the city. In a recent press conference, Mamata Banerjee had said, “It is not in my hands any more. Now I have nothing more to do. You can sleep with corona by your side, making it you side-pillow. I am sorry.” The people of Kolkata seemed to have taken their Chief Minister’s words quite literally as they stepped out of their homes after two months of lockdown, paying no need to the danger that might well lie ahead.

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