The COVID-19 protocol went for a toss as thousands of people criss-crossed the city on Panchami night on Monday even two days before the official beginning of the pujas. If this is an indicator then it is going to be a crowded puja this year which might give sleepless nights to the state government, puja organisers and the medical experts as well.
Across parts of north and south Kolkata, pandal-hoppers poured on the streets from late Sunday afternoon and the crowd kept swelling through the evening. Public health experts warned about a fresh surge in Covid cases if people dropped their guard and kept mingling without wearing masks but on Sunday evening, Covid seemed to be the last thing on the minds of the revellers.
Police officers said that pandal-hoppers started crowding parts of Gariahat, Rashbehari and Behala in the south and pockets of Tallah, Hatibagan, Maniktala and Sovabazar in the north from late afternoon.
"Across parts of Singhi Park and Ekdalia Evergreen in Gariahat, the young crowd started pouring in from around 2 p.m.," said a senior police officer. Near several key intersections, pedestrian channels had to be created with moveable guardrails to steer pandal-hoppers and those who were out for last-minute Puja shopping.
"The crowd this Tritiya is much more than what we witnessed on Tritiya 2020," said one of the organisers of Badamtala Ashar Sangha in Kalighat. "Many who are fully vaccinated possibly thought it was fine to step out for some pandal-hopping. This wasn't the case last year."
Health experts are worried because there was a much-restricted crowd in 2020 and the state government was successful in keeping the spread of coronavirus under control. But this year despite the restrictions imposed by the Calcutta High Court the limitless flow of people will definitely keep the state health department finger-crossed.
The department has already issued an advisory urging the people "to avoid gatherings and processions as much as possible this year, keeping in mind the possibility of Covid third wave and spreading of infection". The health department also suggested that revellers should keep the festivities confined to their families instead of moving in large crowds.
The health advisory further said that 'Sindur Khela', a popular ritual on Dashami in which women smear vermillion on each other's faces, should also be avoided this year considering the possibility of a fresh explosion of cases through body contact.
The health department further said that people, and more so children, the elderly or those battling ailments, should avoid crowded public places, especially restaurants, pandals and market places. Those developing fever or cold symptoms during the festival should avoid stepping out and isolate themselves at home, the advisory stated.
The state government in a subsequent order said, "Spacious Open Pandals with Separate Entry-Exit Pandals shall have to be spacious and should be kept open from all sides. If in case it becomes essential to have closed ceiling, the sides will have to be kept open. Pandals must keep adequate space and arrangements for ensuring physical distancing in terms of the existing Covid-19 pandemic norms. There should be separate Entry and Exit arrangements with separate gates. Mingling and crowding should be avoided at all places. Floor markings and other signages should be made on entry and exit routes and assembly points to ensure compliance of physical distancing norms."
"Use of masks and sanitizers shall be compulsory for all visitors to the pandals. To meet any exigency, organisers shall make adequate arrangements for distribution of masks in close vicinity of the pandal for visitors who inadvertently come to the pandal premises without wearing masks. The use and availability of hand sanitizers should similarly be made compulsory in the pandal premises and neighbourhood."
Public health experts warned that the Covid graph had started rising in Kolkata again and people should be careful.
"There is a slow but steady rise in Covid cases. But that seems to have become unimportant. It can trigger a fresh wave which will be disastrous," said a senior public health expert who is also the member of the state government's Covid expert committee.
"Police or administration cannot ensure safety. People have to be cautious themselves," he added.