One of the central teams began visiting Covid-19-affected areas of Calcutta on Tuesday afternoon after a meeting with Bengal chief secretary Rajiva Sinha against the backdrop of initial disagreements.
During the day, the Union home ministry had directed the state government to cooperate with the five-member team of officials. In his letter to chief secretary Sinha, Union home secretary Ajay Bhalla pointed out that the teams were not receiving the cooperation of state and local authorities.
Having made its point by writing a letter to the Prime Minister and drawing attention to the “affront to the federal structure”, the Mamata Banerjee government chose not to let the issue snowball into a confrontation in the middle of a national pandemic crisis.
Till now through the outbreak, the chief minister had steered clear of a political slugfest although the Right-wing ecosystem has been trying to provoke her.
A section of officials said the state government did what it was supposed to after registering its protest against the Centre’s “unilateral” decision to send the teams.
“As the team stationed in Calcutta adhered to the protocol of meeting the chief secretary before visiting any parts of the state, the members were allowed to visit parts of Calcutta,” said a senior government official.
Another team that reached north Bengal on Monday unannounced did not step out of the paramilitary force guesthouse near Siliguri where they have been put up.
The Bengal chief secretary was scheduled to meet the group meant for Calcutta at 11am at Nabanna on Tuesday, but the meeting got rescheduled. Sinha went to meet the team at the BSF headquarters at Gurusaday Dutta Road, where the officials are staying, around 1pm.
Sources in Nabanna said the meeting was crucial as the state government had opposed the visit of the central teams — to assess the lockdown situation and complaints of attacks on healthcare workers — citing the unilateral decision of the Union home ministry.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing her displeasure at the Centre’s move and alleging an affront to the federal structure.
“Till 3pm, it was still not clear whether the state would allow the team to visit areas in Calcutta and surrounding districts…. Finally, around 4pm, the state government appointed a liaison officer from Calcutta police and allowed the team to visit parts of Calcutta,” said a senior government official.
The Union home secretary’s letter reached Nabanna after Sinha’s visit to the BSF guesthouse.
Sources said the letter was drafted by the Union home ministry after the central teams reported to the Centre that they were not getting the state’s cooperation to visit coronavirus-affected areas.
Apurva Chandra, the official heading the Calcutta team, had told news agency ANI that unlike the teams visiting Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, they were not getting the support of the Bengal administration.
“In fact, they have been specifically restrained from making any visits, interacting with the professionals, and assessing the ground-level situation,” Bhalla’s letter said.
Sources said the central team alerted the Union home ministry when the chief secretary rescheduled the meeting after he was tied up in another important meeting.
“But this was an uncalled-for step. The chief secretary himself went to meet the team at the BSF headquarters. It was clear that the state was not adamant on its stand though it had reservations about the visit,” an official said.
“The state never said that it would not allow the teams to visit. It had just sought to know why the teams had been sent,” the official added.