No other State in the Union has figured in news reports for a flagrant defiance of the Standard Operating Procedure during the coronavirus lockdown than Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal. Right from the word go, its attitude to the pandemic has been casual, over-layered with a preconceived prejudice against the Modi Government, which laid down the guiding rules for the country to follow during the grave medical emergency.
In not enforcing the lockdown half as seriously as most other States did, West Bengal seemed to believe it was continuing its fight against the Centre. Such insouciance only caused the virus to spread further. But the State Government also indulged in fakery and fraud to suppress the real figures of those tested, infected and dead from the virus. The other day, newspapers published an official circular wherein a mid-level medical officer instructed all concerned not to ascribe the fatalities to the coronavirus. And should they need to disclose the number of deaths, these should be blamed on other normal diseases. Promptly, the said officer was put under suspension, not for the said instructions to his subordinate medical officers, but for not ensuring that the circular in question did not land in the wrong hands. Why would the West Bengal Chief Minister stoop so low as to play with the lives of her people?
For, almost from the beginning of the lockdown, independent observers and the Opposition parties in the State have pointed out glaring violations of the lockdown guidelines on social distancing, on keeping bazaars and market places closed, on preventing all vehicular traffic, on not letting people gather outside their homes, etc. The Centre, too, repeatedly sent her warnings about the gross defiance of the lockdown drill, but to no avail. The State Government not only thumbed its nose at the Centre, it publicly maintained that the situation in the State was better than the rest of the country. And the megaphones of the ruling Trinamool Congress blasted the Centre for injecting partisan politics in the fight against the killer virus.
Actually, it turns out, the boot was on the other foot, as the letter the Union Home Ministry wrote to the Mamata Banerjee Government on Wednesday points out. The sharply-worded letter noted that the State Government’s response to the coronavirus was ‘characterised by a very low rate of testing in proportion to the population, and a very high rate of mortality of 13.2 per cent for the State, by far the highest in the country.’ Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla in the two-page letter to the West Bengal Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha, said that the situation in the state was ‘a reflection of poor surveillance, detection and testing…there is also a need to increase random testing in crowded clusters..’ The letter said ‘instances of overcrowding in markets with poor sanitation, free movement of people in large numbers without masks, bathing of people in rivers, people playing cricket and football, serious lapses in enforcing lockdown measures in containment zones, rickshaws allowed on roads without any restriction are grave violation of lockdown instructions and social distancing norms’.
It is notable that the two inter-ministerial central teams that had gone to West Bengal and few other States to supervise the enforcement of the lockdown were meted out a demonstrably cold reception by the State authorities. They were prevented from visiting certain parts of the State, denied assistance and security by the district administration and generally treated with an unconcealed hostility by the people. Nonetheless, these teams extensively toured seven districts and also furnished the State Government with their findings.
It is significant that following the visit by the central teams, the State Government felt obliged to revise its tally of deaths due to the coronavirus. It had depressed the numbers not only of deaths from the virus but even of those who were infected by it. Instead, Mamata Banerjee seemed to believe that by publicising her daily visits in Kolkata and places in the State and making a show of enforcing the lockdown she could hide her inability to take the fight against the pandemic seriously — and see it merely as an extension of her fight against the Modi Government. Doing this, she let down the people of West Bengal.