Calcutta High Court allows Gangasagar Mela, doctors fear COVID crisis will worsen in Bengal and across States

Published : January 07, 2022 20:43 IST

Pilgrims going to the Gangasagar Mela wait to take the COVID-19 test near a transit camp, in Kolkata on January 7. Photo: Swapan Mahapatra/PTI

The Joint Platform of Doctors had appealed to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to stop the Gangasagar Mela, stating that the political rallies and campaigns for the Kolkata Municipal Corporation elections and Christmas and New Year celebrations had already resulted in a grim situation.

With the Calcutta High Court allowing the West Bengal government to hold the Gangasagar Mela, doctors in the State fear that the COVID crisis will not only worsen but also spread to other parts of the country from where the pilgrims will be coming. Lakhs of people are expected to attend the Mela in South 24 Parganas between January 8 and January 16. While allowing the mega religious event to take place in midst of a raging pandemic, the High Court laid down several conditions that have to be observed and ordered that a three-member committee to be formed to "keep vigil".

Speaking to Frontline, Dr Punyabrata Gun, Convener of the Joint Platform of Doctors, said, "We saw the kind of spread of infection that took place because of the celebrations on December 24 and January 31. We are looking at an even bigger spread after the Gangasagar Mela. But this time the spread will not be restricted to our State alone; people from different States come to Gangasagar, and if they get infected here, they will take it back to their own States. Our State will be held responsible for further spreading the infection all over the country." Earlier, the government had relaxed the night curfew in the last week of December, resulting in unrestrained crowding and merriment in the streets, which led to a sharp spike in the number of COVID cases. On December 24, the number of new cases stood at 550, which increased to 4,512 on January 1.

The Joint Platform of Doctors had appealed to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee through an email to stop the Gangasagar Mela, stating that the political rallies and campaigns for the Kolkata Municipal Corporation elections and allowing Christmas and New Year celebrations to take place had already resulted in a grim situation. "In this scenario, one does not need experts to realise that if the Gangasagar Mela takes place, the situation will become terrible…. We know from past experience how such events lead to the spread of the infection. If this Mela is supported at the government level, then this government alone will have to bear the blame and shame for spreading the infection across the country," the letter stated.

A Public Interest Litigation was also filed in the Calcutta High Court by a certain Dr Avinandan Mondal, seeking cancellation of the Mela. On January 5, the court had directed, "Having regard to the severity of spreading of COVID virus, we expect that the State will seriously consider the plea to ban the Mela this year…"

On January 7, A Bench comprising Chief Justice Prakash Shrivastava and Justice Kesang Doma Bhutia, allowed the Mela to take place, but imposed certain conditions. Referring to the government’s order that not more than 50 persons at a time shall be allowed for any social, religious and cultural gatherings, the court directed the Home Secretary to ensure that the restriction, issued by the State were duly implemented without any lapse in Gangasagar Island during the Mela period. It directed that a three member committee be set up, comprising the Leader of Opposition in the State or his representative, the chairman of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission or his representative, and a representative of the State "which will keep vigil in respect of compliance of the above directions". "In case if any shortcoming in compliance is noticed, then the Committee will make a recommendation to the State without any delay to ban entry in the island, on which the competent Authority of the State will take immediate action. Secretary of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission will coordinate between the members of the committee," the court said. The judges also pointed out that it was the responsibility of the State "to make the general public aware by various means of publication and announcements about the adverse consequence of visiting a small island in large numbers".

As of January 7, the number of new cases stood at 18,213, and the total number of active cases was 61,667. Eighteen people died, taking the total number of deaths to 19,882. The positivity rate stood at 26.34 per cent, and the rate of occupancy in COVID beds in hospitals was 4.54 per cent. The discharge rate stood at 95.84 per cent and the fatality rate at 1.16 per cent. Kolkata accounted for maximum number of cases (7,484), followed by North 24 Parganas (3,118), Howrah (1,360) and Paschim Bardhaman (1,043).