(Representational Image)
(Representational Image)

Three days before West Bengal is set to usher the festival of Durga Puja amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Calcutta High court on Monday declared all pandals as no-entry zones for visitors and declared as containment zones, with barricades to be put up by puja organizers at the entrance.

The High Court order was in response to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by Ajay Kumar. Only organizers are allowed inside puja pandals with names of maximum 25 people decided in advance who can enter the pandals. Smaller pandals can allow only 15 people. A board with these names will be hung outside the puja pandals. The number of people entering the pandals have to be fixed and cannot be changed everyday.

Visitors will have to be 5 metres away from small pandals and 10 metres away from big pandals. The high court has said that it is disappointing that the State has not come up with a plan to implement the guidelines issued by them. The court that the state tried it’s best to make a guideline but cannot be implemented due to limited Police force and managing around six lakh people on the roads while pandal hopping is not possible.

The High Court order read, “The virus refuses to go away. Though the healthcare facilities in the State have been augmented, with the limited resources available, the State can only do so much. In such a situation, it may be judicious to err on the side of prevention than to allow the festivities to go on without any checks and repent later that adequate resources may not be available to provide for the massive cure that may become necessary.”

The court order further states, “When students across disciplines whether in schools or colleges or engaged in higher studies, have been prevented from attending educational institutions for more than six months and several students stand to lose a year, it is rather incongruous that puja festivities would continue as in the previous years.”

Police personnel are to ensure that the High Court order is adhered to and the court has asked the Director-General of Police (DGP) and Commissioner of Police to report to the court within four days of Laxmi puja by November 5th. In addition to this, the court has also asked each puja committee to submit a blueprint on crowd management. There are over 37,000 puja committees in West Bengal, including 3,000 in Kolkata.

Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP Sougata Roy has said he is saddened by the High court order and that this will result in problems for puja organizers. "It is a setback for Puja organisers... we will wait for the government to speak."

The COVID-19 cases in the state have risen in recent weeks as people are out in large numbers shopping for the big festival. Social distancing norms have been compromised along with masks not being worn. Health experts raised an alarm at the situation. The latest development in the Calcutta high court comes days after the court directed puja organizers to spend 75% of the Rs 50,000 grant given by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) government on the procurement of COVID-19 protection equipment like sanitisers and masks while the rest of the amount must be spent on strengthening public-police bonding.

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