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Explained: What impact will the ban on visitors at Durga Puja pandals in West Bengal have?

The Calcutta High Court has restricted visitors from entering Durga Puja pandals due to Covid-19. What did the court say in its order, and what impact is this likely to have across West Bengal?

Written by Santanu Chowdhury , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata | October 20, 2020 1:37:16 pm
Durga Puja, Calcutta HC on Durga Puja, Durga Puja pandal, Kolkata Durga Puja pandal, HC on Durga Puja pandal, Indian ExpressA sign in Bangla in front of the idol reads: "By the directive of the Hon'ble High Court, entry of all visitors to our Puja mandap is prohibited -- Arjunpur Aamra Shobai Club Durga Puja Committee." (Express Photo: Partha Paul)

The Calcutta High Court Monday (October 19) ordered that Durga Puja pandals in West Bengal will be out of bounds for visitors “in public interest” after expressing apprehension that overcrowding of people during the festive season could lead to an “uncontrollable” rise in the number of Covid-19 cases.

The order is applicable to over 34,000 Durga Puja committees across the state, including over 3,000 in Kolkata.

What did the Calcutta High Court say on Durga Puja?

While hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by one Ajay Kumar, a division bench of the High Court, comprising Justices Sanjib Banerjee and Arijit Banerjee, said no one, barring select members of the puja organising committee, would be allowed to enter the marquee of the pandals.

“In public interest, all pandals whereat Durga Puja is being celebrated this year are made no-entry zones for members of the public. Further, for the smaller pandals, a five-metre zone beyond the extremities of the pandals on all sides and, for the larger pandals, a 10-metre zone beyond the extremities of the pandal on all sides will be a part of the no-entry zone. In other words, the area covered by the pandals and the additional area around the pandals extending 5m from the smaller pandals and 10m from the bigger pandals will have to be barricaded as a no-entry zone,” the bench said in its judgment.

“The only exception would be for the named personnel, including the priest, who will be identified by the puja organisers in advance and whose names would be displayed for checks to be made at any point of time. At the smaller pandals 15 persons will be named in the list who may have access to the no-entry zone at all times. The number will be 25 to 30 in respect of the bigger to the biggest pandals. These directions will apply to all public puja pandals all over the State, including the 34,000 pujas which have obtained grants from the State,” it added. 📣 Click to follow Express Explained on Telegram

Also read | Pandemic puja prompts (adventurous) Bengalis to discover charms of Bengal this vacation season

Why is the Calcutta HC order significant?

The High Court order came in the backdrop of rising Covid-19 cases and deaths across the state. On Monday, the toll in West Bengal touched 6,119 with a record number of new cases — 3,992 — reported in a day, taking the state’s tally to over 3.25 lakh. In the past seven days, the state has reported 437 Covid-19 deaths and over 27,000 new cases.

Authorities were alarmed with the overcrowding of people in markets and shopping malls ahead of the festival. People were seen without face masks, flouting social distancing norms, and jostling with each other as they shopped at the last minute.

Even doctors expressed apprehension that if this continued, hospitals would run out of Covid beds for patients, which would lead to a complete collapse of state’s healthcare system.

On October 18, thousands of people thronged Shreebhumi Sporting Club Durga Puja after it was thrown open to the public. Visuals showed visitors were allowed inside the puja pandal in huge numbers, while safety and security took a back seat.

This prompted the HC to clamp down on the festival this year. The order is aimed at discouraging the common citizen from milling around pandals in a bid to check the spread of the disease.

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Durga Puja, Calcutta HC on Durga Puja, Durga Puja pandal, Kolkata Durga Puja pandal, HC on Durga Puja pandal, Indian Express A health worker wearing a protective suit sanitises a makeshift Durga Puja pandal in south Kolkata on October 13, 2020. (Express Photo: Partha Paul)

What happens now?

Following the order, Forum for Durgatsab has decided to file a review petition in the HC. The state government, however, has not yet decided whether it will challenge the HC order in the Supreme Court.

Durga Puja committees, on the other hand, have started chalking out fresh plans on an alternative way to allow visitors to take at look at their idols. Puja committees which erect pandals in public parks and playgrounds have an upper hand in redesigning their pandal layouts. According to the court order, they have the option of shifting the barricades and opening up the pandal further, allowing a better view of the idol from a distance.

However, for committees which erect pandals in narrow bylanes and in congested areas, the challenge is much bigger. As the court has said visitors cannot enter the marquee, it limits these organisers from showing off their idols and the artwork of the craftsmen as their pandals are usually viewed by visitors who enter from one side and exit from the other.

Several committees have already decided to live stream the puja on their websites and social media handles. Some have decided to install giant screens outside their pandals to allow visitors to view the idols. However, the experience of Durga Puja will not be the same for pandal hoppers and for those who take part in puja rituals, like offering Anjali on Ashtami (eighth day of the Durga Puja).

What are the consequences?

The court order comes as a blow for small businesses, like food stalls, which usually set up shop near pandals during the festival. Without visitors, they are likely to run into huge loses. Advertisers too, which have booked slots in and around puja pandals, will incur losses.

However, as there are no restrictions outside pandals, it is yet to be seen whether people still throng the pandals in an attempt to view the idols from afar.

Further, there may be immense pressure on restaurants and shopping malls to accommodate more people. Once denied entry to puja pandals, visitors are likely to gather around such places to soak in the festive spirit. Cinema halls, which reopened on October 15, are likely to do fine business too. All these will have a deep impact on the city’s traffic, as there will be overcrowding on the streets.

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