A day after it directed Kerala to rectify its lockdown relaxations saying some of the concessions diluted national guidelines, the Centre singled out more states, putting under strain the common exit strategy that the Prime Minister had urged states to help frame in the country’s efforts against COVID-19.
On Monday, the Centre informed West Bengal, Maharashtra, Rajasthan — all ruled by the Opposition — and Madhya Pradesh that lockdown measures were being routinely flouted in their districts, and it was sending six newly-constituted Inter-Ministerial Central Teams (IMCTs) for on-the-spot assessment of the situation there.
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The IMCTs, which will submit a report to the Centre, have been authorised to issue necessary directions to state authorities for redressal. Headed by Additional Secretary-rank officers from the Centre, the IMCTs will start the inspection visits within three days of the order.
TMC-ruled West Bengal’s initial response was frosty, questioning the deployment of the IMCTs and suggesting that it “might not be consistent with the spirit of federalism”.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, taking to Twitter, 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. I urge both Honb’le Prime Minister @NarendraModi Ji & Home Minister @AmitShah Ji to share the criterion used for this. Until then I am afraid, we would not be able to move ahead on this as without valid reasons this might not be consistent with the spirit of federalism.”
Incidentally, West Bengal and Maharashtra are among the handful of states where doubling time of COVID-19 cases is currently less than the national average of 7.5 days. Doubling time is an epidemiological metric of how fast an infectious disease is spreading.
Ever since the Prime Minister’s call for a Janata Curfew on March 22, states have been following the Centre’s line on battling the outbreak. There has hardly been any public criticism of the Centre’s decisions – there were suggestions though that states were taken by surprise when the first national lockdown was announced on March 24. All political parties have broadly agreed with the contours of the Centre’s plan to fight the pandemic.
On Monday, the Ministry of Home Affairs, in identical letters to West Bengal, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, identified districts which are problem areas. The justification for constitution of IMCTs is based largely on general observations such as “incidents of violence on frontline healthcare professionals; complete violation of social distancing norms outside banks, PDS shops etc, and in market places; movement of private and commercial vehicles with passengers in urban areas, and so on”.
This text is identical in all four letters, signed by Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla: “…in some of the districts of the country, a number of violations to the lockdown measures have been reported, posing a serious health hazard and risk for spread of COVID 19 which is against general Interest of public.”
The letters go on to state, “These incidents, if they are allowed to occur without any restraining measures in hotspot districts or emerging hotspots, with large outbreaks or clusters, pose a serious health hazard, both for the population of these districts and for that living in other areas of the country.”
In the case of West Bengal, the MHA has identified seven districts — Kolkata, Howrah, Medinipur East, North 24 Parganas, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Jalpaiguri— where it said “the situation is especially serious” in terms of “prevalence of such violations”.
These districts, according to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, cumulatively account for 224 Covid cases with Kolkata reporting the maximum (105), followed by Howrah (46) and North 24 Parganas (37). Darjeeling has the least number of Covid cases among these seven districts – three positive cases.
The MHA order said it is constituting two IMCTs for West Bengal which will “make an on-the-spot assessment of the situation, issue necessary directions to the State authorities for redressal of the situation, and submit their report to the Central Government in larger interest of general public”.
Asked about the specific health circumstances in the identified West Bengal districts that necessitated such a move, Lav Agarwal, Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Health, said: “When we identify areas of concern, there are primarily two major criteria: higher numbers, rate of growth is high or doubling time is low. This is primarily in areas where we need effective intervention so that they do not further lead to larger number of cases.”
Similar orders hold for the other three states regarding the role of IMCTs. The districts identified in Maharashtra are Mumbai and Pune. Together, they account for over 2,500 cases in the state. In Rajasthan, the Centre has identified Jaipur while in Madhya Pradesh, Indore has been picked for lockdown violations. Jaipur has reported 485 cases while Indore has had 707.
The MHA order said the IMCTs will focus their assessment on compliance and implementation of lockdown measures as per national guidelines.”They will also focus on issues like the supply of essential commodities, social distancing in movement of people outside their homes, preparedness of the health infrastructure, hospital faculty and sample statistics in the district, safety of health professionals, availability of test kits, PPEs, masks and other safety equipment, and conditions of the relief camps for labour and poor people,” it said.
It said while the IMCTs air travel from Delhi will be managed by the Ministry of Civil Aviation, the states will provide logistics support to IMCTs “for their accommodation, transportation, PPEs and extend all cooperation for their visits to local areas”. States are also supposed to cooperate in “production of documents/records as requested by IMCT”.
On Mamata Banerjee’s tweets, Punya Salila Srivastava, Joint Secretary in MHA, said: “The purpose of constitution of the teams is to provide support and assistance to the states in their endeavour to fight COVID-19. The teams have been very carefully constituted so that support can be provided from health administrative and disaster management aspects. I am sure the states will benefit from it. The order mentions SC (Supreme Court) directions but the orders have been issued under Section 35 of the Disaster Management Act.”
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