Within 30 minutes of West Bengal receiving the Union Home Ministry’s order announcing the formation of Inter-Ministerial Central Teams to monitor coronavirus in districts, two teams flew into the state at 10 am Monday.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee pointed this out, along with the fact that she got a call from Union Home Minister Amit Shah only around 1 pm, to slam the Centre’s “unilateral action”. She also questioned the criteria on the basis of which seven Bengal districts had been picked for monitoring — of the total 11.
The Union Health Ministry’s district-wise data for COVID-19 released over the weekend shows that the seven districts have 224 cases, as compared to the four non-West Bengal districts selected, which together account for a quarter of the cases in the country, at 3,732.
While one Central team will look at Kolkata, Howrah, North 24 Parganas and East Medinipur districts, another would focus on Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Kalimpong (the last three had between them 15 cases as of April 18).
A comparison of the April 18 data for Kolkata (105 cases) against the four non-West Bengal districts underlines the wide gap. Mumbai had 20 times the number of cases (2,070) as the West Bengal capital; Indore seven times (707); and Jaipur, Pune roughly four times (485 and 470, respectively). Mumbai, Indore, Jaipur and Pune are among the worst-hit in the country.
In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Banerjee questioned the “breach of established protocol” in not keeping the state in loop.
Earlier, in a tweet moments after the Home Ministry’s announcement, the CM said, “We welcome all constructive support & suggestions, especially from the Central Govt in negating the #Covid19 crisis. However, the basis on which Centre is proposing to deploy IMCTs in select districts across India including few in WB under Disaster Mgmt Act 2005 is unclear.”
There are several districts in Bengal which have more cases than Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling, including Paschim Burdwan and Nadia, which are not on the Central list. There are also districts with higher numbers than Kolkata outside West Bengal that are omitted, such as Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Thane, Chennai, Bhopal and Agra.
As of April 18, Darjeeling had three cases, from none earlier, while Jalpaiguri was at five (after 0 on April 1, and four on April 6 and April 12).
The CM cited similar data in her letter to the PM, writing, “It has been stated… that there have been number of violation of lockdown measures and situation is specifically serious in some of the districts. These observations are devoid of any facts… Kalimpong reported the last incident on April 2. Similarly, Jalpaiguri on April 4 and Darjeeling on April 16. It shows that the selection of districts and observations made unilaterally are nothing but a figment of imagination.”
While one Central team arrived in Bagdogra, headed for Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Jalpaiguri, another visited Belgachhia and certain areas of Howrah in Kolkata before reaching the Secretariat in the evening for a meeting with the CM. The talks lasted almost an hour.
In her letter, Banerjee pointed out that while the Central order said the state should make arrangements for the teams, the latter had “approached Central forces like BSF, SSB (Sashastra Seema Bal) for logistics support and had already moved (into) the field without any consultation with the state government”.
The Trinamool government has been in a war of words with the Centre as well as the BJP over its handling of coronavirus, particularly the state’s case count. The Health Ministry’s data for cases (339 vs 318) and deaths (66 vs 12) in West Bengal is higher than the state’s.
Earlier, the CM had claimed “politicisation” in the handling of the pandemic. At the PM’s interaction with chief ministers on April 11, she is learnt to have asked Modi to advise his “leaders and Governor (Jagdeep Dhankar)” not to interfere in the state government’s efforts against COVID-19.
In another move in variance with the national protocol, West Bengal was the first in the country to start auditing deaths to certify if these were caused due to coronavirus or any co-morbidity.
The state has also been accused of not testing enough. Its positivity rate (proportion of positive tests compared to total tests) calculated from the state’s health bulletin on April 20 was around 6%, up from 5.5% on April 11, and higher than the national positivity rate (around 4%).
West Bengal had 225 cases from 15 districts as of April 18. Kolkata had the highest share (108), from 17 on April 1, 29 on April 6 and 29 on April 12. In comparison, Indore, a hotspot, which started off at 12 on April 1 was up to 707 by April 18.
According to the state’s Health and Family Welfare Department Bulletin, it had tested 5,469 samples as of April 20. A total of 3,328 people had been admitted under hospital isolation with only 226 still in hospital. After treatment, 73 people have been discharged.
(With inputs from Kolkata)
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