West Bengal “obstructing” inspection teams, says Centre over State’s refusal to cooperate

Published : April 21, 2020 21:38 IST

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee inspects one of the coronavirus hotspots in Kolkata on April 21. Photo: Debashish Bhaduri

The feud between the West Bengal government and the Centre over the latter sending two teams to inspect COVID-19 hotspots in the State intensified, with the Centre accusing the State administration of not cooperating with the Inter-Ministerial Central Teams (IMCT).

The day after the State government made it clear that it would not cooperate with the Central teams sent to inspect alleged of violations of lockdown in seven districts in the State, allegations came to the fore that the teams were not only denied cooperation by the State administration, but also “restrained” from making visits in particular instances.

In a strongly worded letter to Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha on April 21 Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla said, “It has been brought to the notice of this Ministry that both the IMCTs at Kolkata and Jalpaiguri respectively, have not been provided with the requisite cooperation by the State and local authorities. In fact, they have been specifically restrained from making any visits, interacting with health professionals and assessing the ground-level situation. This amounts to obstructing the implementation of the orders issued by the Central government under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, and equally binding direction of the Hon’ble Supreme Court.

“You are, therefore, directed to comply with the MHA order dated April 19, 2020, and make all necessary arrangements for the IMCTs to carry out such responsibilities as have been entrusted to them vide the aforesaid order.”

The Central order of April 19 stated, “The State Government of West Bengal will provide logistic support to the ICMT, for their accommodation (lodging and boarding), transportation, PPEs, and extend cooperation for their visits to local areas, production of documents/records as requested by ICMT etc.” In its order the Centre had alleged violations of the nationwide lockdown taking place in Kolkata, Howrah, Medinipur East, 24 Parganas North, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Jalpaiguri districts.

The deployment of the ICMTs has degenerated into an ugly political spat, with Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee writing to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 20, saying the claims made in the central order justifying the visit of the ICMTs were “devoid of any facts”, made “unilaterally” and “nothing but a figment of imagination and unfortunate”.

Mamata also accused the Centre of not sending prior intimation of the arrival of the IMCTs and committing breach of established protocol. She wrote: “…Today the Union Home Minister spoke to me over telephone at about 1 p.m. regarding visit of Inter-Ministerial Central Teams to my State. Unfortunately the teams had already landed at Kolkata airport by AI Special Cargo Flight 1701 at 10:10 a.m., i.e., much before our telephonic conversation.”

Mamata’s nephew, Lok Sabha MP Abhishek Banerjee also attacked the Centre on social media. “You cripple GoWB with faulty kits from ICMR & then send IMCTs to monitor GoWB’s performance while keeping the State Govt in dark. In the name of combating the COVID-19 crisis, you're playing with the lives of Bengalis while your leaders use skewed testing nos for fake propaganda,” posted Abhishek, who is considered by many to be Mamata’s heir apparent to the party leadership.

Derek O’Brien, chief national spokesperson and leader of the Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party in the Rajya Sabha, described the Centre’s move as an act against the spirit of federalism. “Anybody who wants to come to Bengal to help the people of Bengal… is welcome. But it has to be done through a process; and if you don’t follow the process, then you make things difficult for yourself. If you want to do adventurist (sic) tourism… calling up a Chief Minister three hours after you’ve arrived, and the Chief Secretary half-an-hour before, then that is not the spirit of federalism,” he said.

The Centre, on the other hand, indicated that among all the States that were being visited by Central teams, it was only West Bengal that was resisting the visit of the IMCTs. On April 21, at a press conference in New Delhi, a representative of the Home Ministry said, “The teams that were sent to Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are receiving the full cooperation of the State governments; but the Home Ministry has received the feedback that in West Bengal the teams that had gone to Kolkata and Jalpaiguri, have not been receiving any help from the State government and the local administration.”

Meanwhile, three more people died of COVID-19 on April 21, taking the “official” toll in the State to 15. The total number of active coronavirus cases in the State, as of April 21, stands at 274.

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