Central team in Bengal denied security, holds State government responsible for its safety

Published : April 25, 2020 22:23 IST

Howrah bridge, at the entry point towards Howrah. Howrah district is one of the designated hotspots that is on the list of the Central team to visit. Photo: Debasish Bhaduri

The Inter-Ministerial Central Teams (IMCT) that are visiting COVID-19 hotspots in West Bengal have once again expressed concern over the lack of support from the State government and the local administration. Voicing his grievance in a letter to Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha on April 25, Additional Secretary to the Government of India Apurva Chandra, who is also the team leader, wrote, “In the absence of police escort would the State government take responsibility for the safety and security of the IMCT if it ventures out on its own.”

Referring to the official order from the Home Ministry on April 19 directing the government of West Bengal to “extend all cooperation” for the teams’ visits to local areas, Apurva Chandra wrote that in spite of the Central team’s repeated request to the State government for a “schedule of its… hospitals/ quarantine centres/ containment zones and market places”, it has not received one till date. According to the order, some of the places the Central teams would be visiting are Kolkata, Howrah, Medinipur East, 24 Paraganas North, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Jalpaiguri districts.

Apurva Chandra pointed out that the IMCT, which has been in Kolkata since 10 a.m. on April 20, has written four letters to the State government. “No response has been received to any of the letters till date. A hard copy of the presentation which was made on 22.04.2020 has also not been made available,” he stated.

Chandra also referred to media reports of the Chief Secretary’s alleged statement that the IMCT is free to visit anywhere and senior officers of the State government cannot waste their time accompanying the team. “The above statement is in violation of the order of the Ministry of Home Affairs… as the State government is expected to provide logistic support and facilitate all field visits,” the letter stated.

The letter hinted that the IMCT had not asked senior officials of the State government to accompany it. Among the several clarifications he sought from Rajiva Sinha, Apurva Chandra asked, “Whether it is fact that IMCT has ever asked that senior officers of the State government should accompany the IMCT. In fact, on the visit of 20.04.2020 only the junior level officers of the Health Department accompanied the IMCT. The only expectation of the IMCT is that doctors and officers at the venue should meet and provide information to the IMCT.”

Another fact that Apurva Chandra wanted clarified was whether “a DCP of West Bengal Police informed BSF officers at BSF guest house on 21.04.2020 that the IMCT cannot leave the campus without permission of the State government as lockdown is in force and the IMCT if it leaves the BSF guest house is only permitted to go to the airport.” The Central team also wanted to know whether PPE would be made available to it by the State governmen, as per MHA Order “if the IMCT decides to visit a hospital/other areas on its own”.

The IMCTs’ visit to the State was fraught with tension right from the beginning, with the government initially refusing to cooperate with the teams unless the Centre provided “valid reasons” for its visit. Following this Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla wrote to Rajiva Sinha about the State “obstructing” the implementation of the orders of the Central government issued under the Disaster Management Act, 2005.

After that, the State administration became more accommodating but , the IMCTs’ stay continued to be a thorn on the side of the Mamata Banerjee government. On April 24, in a letter to Rajiva Sinha, the IMCT indicated its dissatisfaction with the administration’s explanation of how the State government’s audit committee determines the cause of death of a COVID patient.

The IMCTs’ presence has been a major irritant to the State government. “I suggest to the Central teams with utmost humility that they focus more attention on States like Delhi, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala. Our Chief Minister is monitoring the situation 24 hours every day, and we are doing fine. They are moving around here and wasting the time of our officers, which is causing obstruction in our work as well,” said North Bengal Minister Rabindra Nath Ghosh.