IN WHAT is set to worsen the war of words between the Centre and West Bengal over the handling of coronavirus, the Union Home Ministry on Wednesday slammed the state government for not enforcing Covid-19 containment measures effectively, allowing “specific groups in specific localities” in Kolkata and Howrah to violate the curbs as well as attack police and healthcare workers.
In his letter to West Bengal, Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla flagged the plying of rickshaws, children playing cricket, and people bathing in rivers among the violations.
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Bhalla said his observations were based on the reports submitted by the two Inter-Ministerial Central Teams (IMCTs) that recently toured West Bengal to monitor coronavirus measures.
A letter on Monday by Additional Secretary Apurva Chandra, who headed the IMCT sent to Kolkata and Howrah, had made no mention of any “specific group” violating the lockdown guidelines. In the letter sent to West Bengal Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha at the end of the tour — in what he called his “final observations” — Chandra had, however, flagged many shortcomings in the state’s healthcare apparatus.
In his letter to Sinha on Wednesday, Bhalla said, “Lockdown violations have been noted in the cities of Kolkata and Howrah by specific groups in specific localities with media reports of the ‘corona warriors’ including even the police being attacked in such localities. This necessitates stricter enforcement of lockdown by enhancing police presence. Instances of problems faced due to ostracism of health care professionals and lack of quarantine facilities is also worrying.”
The Centre also revised its death rate for Bengal, as per latest data, to 13.2%, up from Chandra’s figure of 12.8%.
The Home Ministry said this showed the state’s deficiencies. “The response to Covid-19 in the State of West Bengal is characterized by a very low rate of testing in proportion to the population, and a very high rate of mortality of 13.2% for the State, by far the highest for any State. This is a reflection of poor surveillance, detection and testing in the State. There is also a need to increase random testing in crowded clusters,” Bhalla’s letter said.
On the lockdown violations, the letter said, “Instances of overcrowding in bazaars, with poor sanitation; free movement of people in large numbers without masks; bathing of people in rivers; people playing cricket and football; serious laxity in enforcing lockdown measures in Containment zones; plying of riskshaws etc. without any restriction; are grave violation of lockdown instructions and social distancing norms.”
The letter stressed hygiene and sanitation measures and talked about gaps in the surveillance and contact-tracing of positive cases, pointing out that the state had not furnished any data regarding the number of households and individuals contacted and surveyed for signs of symptoms.
It called for testing facilities to be set up in the hill districts of North Bengal, as transporting the samples to Siliguri was causing delays, and for welfare measures for poor and migrant labourers. “Steps should also be taken to adequately compensate the workers in the tea gardens of Darjeeling and Siliguri, as reportedly lesser wages were paid to them during the first phase of the lockdown,” the letter said.
The Centre asked the state to ensure proper quality PPEs and N-95 masks to doctors and medical staff in non-Covid-19 hospitals as well. Bhalla said the authorities in Bengal must tackle the issues highlighted by the Centre and the IMCTs urgently.
The Trinamool Congress again accused the Centre of playing politics in the name of fighting coronavirus. TMC leader Derek O’Brien said, “States, including Bengal, are going all out — fighting Corona. Unfortunately, the Central government is going all out — bad mouthing non-BJP states. We are all doing all it takes. This is not the time for politics. Or we too can ask: why was a 21-day lockdown announced with four hours’ notice?”
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