Frosty ties between the Centre and West Bengal were on full display on Tuesday as the two Inter-Ministerial Central Teams that landed in the state to assesses its handling of the COVID-19 situation alleged non-cooperation by the state government, following which Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla shot off a letter to the Chief Secretary, asking him to comply with the Union Home Ministry’s order.
Citing frequent lockdown violations in certain states, the Home Ministry had on Sunday said teams would be sent to the Opposition-ruled states of West Bengal, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, besides Madhya Pradesh.
In Maharashtra, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray reiterated his demand for special trains to take migrant workers back to their home states, seeking revised guidelines to that effect before the end of April.
“…the workers still want to go to their homes and they have taken an aggressive stand on some occasions. If the Union government feels that the number of COVID-19 cases may go up between April 30 and May 15, then the Centre should consider whether we can utilise the time we have on our hands to make arrangements for special trains to transporting the migrant workers to their native places. And the guidelines should be issued before end of April in this regard,” Thackeray said during an interaction through video conference with the Central team.
The state government also withdrew the relaxed lockdown norms for Mumbai and Pune that came into effect on April 20 as the Central team raised objections to some of these, including beginning construction work on existing projects.
In Rajasthan, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot told The Indian Express that he would consider the visit of the Central team a “success if they solved the problem faced by states”, adding that he reminded the teams that the state had “demanded a moratorium on payment of states’ dues to financial institutions under the RBI and other Central agencies”.
But it was in Bengal that the two Central teams, that arrived in the state on Monday, got off to a rocky start. While the north Bengal team could not move out the entire day on Tuesday, the team in Kolkata stepped out in the morning only to be told by police to make a U-turn.
Sources said the team was scheduled to hold a meeting with Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha at 11 am, which was cancelled.
Finally, it was only around 4.30 pm, after Sinha held a 30-minute meeting with the Central team at the BSF guesthouse at Gurusaday Road, where they have been put up, that the team members were able to visit parts of the city, including Jadavpur and part of EM Bypass, with police and BSF escorting them.
On Monday, the day the team landed, the members had visited the office of the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases in the city and held a meeting with the Chief Secretary at Nabanna, the state secretariat.
Apurva Chandra, Additional Secretary, Department of Defence and leader of the five-member team in Kolkata, told ANI on Tuesday, “We met the Chief Secretary last evening at around 6 pm in Nabanna. We were assured that we will again have a meeting today and we will be taken around. But today we were informed that there are some issues and we will not be going out.”
“The order of deployment says the state government shall provide logistic support to us. I have been in touch with the chief secretary since yesterday seeking support from the state government to visit areas. In fact, we made it very clear that we will go around only with state government liaison officers. We would like to add that teams have gone to other places like Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan and they are getting full support from the state governments and all the teams are working. They have also been given the same notice as the state government of West Bengal. But they are active and have not faced problems,” Chandra said.
The team was later provided a liaison officer by the state, following which it visited 5-6 areas in Kolkata. The team, however, did not step out from the car for a physical inspection. “This was just a visual tour of how well the lockdown is being implemented in the city,” said a team member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Asked about the team’s first impression of the lockdown implementation, the member said, “It seemed 90% effective.”
The team did not give any feedback to the state government after the visual tour. According to sources, the team has specifically requested the Chief Secretary to arrange for a visit to COVID hospitals, quarantine centres and containment zones. “No assurances have been made on that request,” the member said.
In Siliguri, the five-member Central team led by Vineet Joshi, Additional Secretary, HRD Ministry, remained stationed at the guesthouse of the Shashastra Sena Bal. Till reports last came in, they were unable to move out.
During his evening press briefing, Chief Secretary Sinha said the administration was “cooperating” with the teams, but also reminded that the Central teams should have informed the state of their arrival in a “proper manner”.
“…our stand is that the Centre should have contacted us first and then sent the teams. They wanted to go around Kolkata. One officer from Kolkata Police also accompanied them. We have asked them to take all precautions while visiting areas. We advised them to stay in the car and if they wanted to move about on foot, they must alert the police first. We provided them with all the information. We believe in cooperaton between the Central and state government. However, it is not wise to blame only the state. Both sides should show discipline,” said Sinha.
On the team at North Bengal, Sinha said, “I spoke with the team a number of times. .there is a protocol. If a Central team comes, they will have to meet the Chief Secretary. We hoped they would first meet us and then move to North Bengal. The protocol has been breached. However, we have provided all information they sought.”
When asked about Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla’s letter, asking him to comply with the MHA order, Sinha said, “Everyone is busy now. We are co-operating. But we cannot leave everything and move around with the Central teams.”
Meanwhile, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee hit the streets of Kolkata Tuesday afternoon, speaking into a loudspeaker and asking people not to venture out of their homes.
In Indore, Madhya Pradesh, the central team told the local administration to increase the number of beds in hospitals for COVID 19 patients, should the need arise. With 915 cases and 52 deaths from COVID-19, Indore is one of the worst affected cities in the country.
(With inputs from ENS, Mumbai, Bhopal, Delhi)
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