Calcutta High Court bans visitors inside Durga Puja pandals amid fear of COVID spike in West Bengal

Published : October 19, 2020 22:12 IST

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee inaugurating a puja pandal on October 17 in Kolkata. Photo: PTI

In a major decison hailed by doctors across West Bengal, the Calcutta High Court on October 19 ordered that visitors will not be allowed inside the Durga Puja pandals across the State and only the organisers can enter them in a restricted manner. Doctors believe that this timely intervention by the High Court may prevent a huge spike in COVID-19 cases which they feared would be the case during the festivities.

While hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) petition on whether the Durga Puja should be allowed in the State when the COVID-19 pandemic was raging, a Division Bench comprising judges Sanjib Banerjee and Arijit Banerjee directed the authorities that a maximum of 25 organisers of the puja could be allowed if the pandal was a big one and 10 persons if it was small. The names of the organisers who are to be allowed inside should be put up outside the pandal and these names could not be changed on a daily basis, the court said.

Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, lawyer and senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) who represented the petitioner, said: “The Calcutta High Court said that five metres in the case of smal pandals and 10 metres for large pandals should be declared no-entry zones. The distance will have to be measured from the place where the boundary of Durga Puja pandal ends.” The court also directed that “No Entry” signs should be put up near pandals, and steps should be taken to make the general public aware of the High Court’s order.

The ruling Trinamool Congress expressed “sadness” at the court’s order. Sougata Roy, senior leader and Lok Sabha MP, said: “The puja committees will face a lot of problems because of this order. All their efforts will go waste, and the State government’s financial help to the puja committees will also not be put to use. I am sad about the court’s order. We will see what the State government has to say about it.”

However, doctors and health workers are happy with the order. Doctors’ organisations had earlier written to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the State Chief Secretary warning them that they feared a huge spike in the number of COVID cases after the celebrations were over. In fact, the doctors had alleged that their warnings were not being properly heeded by the State administration.

Punyabrata Gun, convenor of West Bengal Doctors’ Forum, told Frontline: “We see this as a positive step. We wanted the State government to take steps to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. While the State government had prepared a guideline to be followed during the pujas, no steps were taken to implement those guidelines. The court’s order of making the Pandals a no-entry zone will also prevent the spread of Covid.” He also feels that people are still not fully aware of the danger. “People are going about without masks, going to malls, and so on. They have to be made more aware.”

Tamal Laha, the eminent Kolkata-based doctor, also feels that the High Court order was necessary to prevent a hike in the number of cases. “While it is an unfortunate fact that a lot of poor people, especially small vendors, will be badly hit, it must also be kept in mind that it is more important to remain alive. However much the government may try to put in place rules and restrictions, it would have been impossible to control lakhs of people. A strong order like this was needed,” Laha told Frontline.

On September 24, Mamata Banerjee had announced that the State government would provide a dole of Rs 50,000 to each of the 37,000 odd puja committees in the State. On October 16, the High Court had ordered that the State government’s grant of Rs.50,000 cannot be spent on festivities alone. The puja committees will have to spend 75 per cent of the grant on providing face masks, hand sanitisers and other protective gear to visitors to the puja pandals and 25 per cent on community policing. The committees will also have to present an account of their expenditure to the State government. With Mamata Banerjee inaugurating pujas in different localities either in person or through video conferencing, crowds have already begun to swell in various pandals in Kolkata.

The number of COVID-19 cases in West Bengal has been rising over the past few weeks after Mahalaya (September 17) and people have been thronging markets and malls for puja shopping, throwing all caution to the wind. On October 18, the State witnessed both the highest number of cases in a single day (3,983) and the highest number of deaths (64). The total number of deaths has also crossed the 6,000 mark.

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