As Durga Pujo season looms for Bengal, residential societies in Kolkata remain in a state of ‘civil’ war and confusion due to lack of clarity and support from the Mamata Banerjee-led government, positioning them as potential Covid hotspots.
Durga Pujo is the biggest festival in Kolkata — where not only lakhs of people throng to pandals but also erect them in their own housing complexes. But a pandemic hadn’t been factored in by most resident associations.
At a high-rise complex on the city’s eastern fringes, despite warnings from government officials and medical experts, a Ganesh Pujo pandal was recently erected while a children’s programme and ‘bhog’ (feast) was also planned – all in contravention of the state government’s latest lockdown order, which prohibits religious gatherings (among others). When the police intervened, the pandal was abandoned and the entire operation moved indoors — making it worse.
This was perhaps just a trailer of what awaits the city.
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The hubris of resident societies
The fault lies not as much with the befuddled society management but with the state whose instructions and orders lack clarity. In the West Bengal government’s ‘Memo No 177-CS/2020’ circulated on 18 May, tucked away under the fifth segment on ‘Relaxations in Clean Area (Category-C), was this: “Household maintenance services like plumbing, electrician, carpenter, and domestic help with consent of Resident Welfare Association as applicable”. This is being interpreted as juxtaposed with a later order, ‘Memo No.295-CS/2020’, that says: “…shall continue to remain closed/prohibited”, which includes “…religious functions”. Societies have interpreted Memo 177 as giving them a free hand within their walls while Memo 295 does not provide any exemptions.
Covid management is nearing total collapse in most residential societies. The plan was for district medical officers to notify societies should one of their residents tests positive. This has been almost non-existent. Societies are left to hope that their residents are forthright enough to inform the management about their positive status, leaving residents wondering if their alarmingly low population to positive ratio is deliverance or duplicity. ‘Contact tracing’ exists in theory only; rarely asked for, almost never filled in and the government shows no interest in it.
There is at least one good example — the New Town Kolkata Development Authority, a municipality for the city’s sprawling satellite township. At ‘UniWorld City’, the society’s president has been getting proactive support from the municipality – timely notification of any positive residents, regular video conferencing and meetings, vendors to collect waste from quarantined homes and even sealing of flats.
But the inconsistent approach by the state government, bolstered by the watering down of Covid rules generally – including the reduction of the number of days in quarantine — has left societies at war within. On one side are those who believe ‘all is well’, events must go ahead, gyms must open, with social distancing and masks; on the other hand are those who want to err on the side of caution — do not open anything that is not critical, all events must be held in own homes, and no unnecessary risks should be taken.
Society management, keen to ensure their own re-election, push ahead with the former option until there is an uproar or police action, at which point they withdraw to the latter. In the midst of all this, the Mamata Banerjee government remains a mute spectator, believing societies are mature enough to handle themselves.
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Festival after festival
Now, the festival season looms with the assembly election in the state not far behind it. The combination has left Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee with a tough decision – allow, directly or vicariously, pujos to go ahead with whatever restrictions and risk a surge and backlash at the ballot box, or be strict, allow home celebrations only, endure a massive economic loss to all those connected to the pujo industry and get a backlash at the ballot box. The writing is on the wall already; city hospitals are flooded and there is a delay of anywhere between 5 and 14 days for a Covid-19 test — a dangerous lag for those who are unconfirmed positive and not in isolation.
Meanwhile, the enforcement wing of the Kolkata Police is already racked with Covid — over 1,700 officers have been infected, including one IPS officer, while nine personnel have passed away, in a total force strength just shy of 25,000. The police’s ability to effectively enforce restrictions is already hampered even though India’s Covid numbers continue to rise.
Ganesh Pujo marks the beginning of the cultural and economic festival boom in Bengal. Thousands of crores are at stake as (under normal circumstances) friends and family from across India flock home, money is lavished in the retail sector, artisans see an explosion in trade, caterers, pandal makers, trucks/generator hire services and many others see business boosted while the corporate sector splurges on advertising on everything from newspapers to hoardings.
The season signals endless festivities — Ganesh Chaturthi, the start of the Islamic New Year with the holy month of Muharram, Vishwakarma, Mahalaya, then the peak at Durga Pujo which culminates in the Mamata Banerjee brainchild hit ‘Red Road’ parade, then tailing off with Lakshmi Pujo, Jagadhatri Pujo and ending with Kali Pujo in November, only to pick up pace again for Christmas – with Kolkata now hosting the largest Christmas event in Asia, the ‘Park Street Xmas Festival’ — and finally ending with New Year’s, which again attracts lakhs to Park Street. Residential complexes are also gearing up to spend lakhs and invite thousands of people. They erect their own pandals, take part in local competitions, bring in caterers and musicians. If this wasn’t chaos already, the pandemic has added a lot more to it.
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A dangerous season
Experts have warned against a cocktail of diseases awaiting the city. “Large gatherings, especially during the festive season, will result in a surge of Covid cases. The monsoons and frequent changes in the weather makes one vulnerable to waterborne and mosquito-spread disease like typhoid and dengue. Covid co-infected with these diseases can be a fatal combination,” Dr Souvik Paul, a critical care specialist in Kolkata, told me.
“Flu and dengue symptoms are similar to Covid, so people will think they have flu or dengue when they actually have Covid. Even if they get flu or dengue, it will reduce their immunity and make them more vulnerable to Covid, which they will get from festival crowds,” Dr Paul added.
An infectious disease expert, Dr Debkishore Gupta said, “Mass gatherings must be strongly discouraged. ‘New Normal’ should apply to pujos as well, with more emphasis on live broadcast and the public getting used to it.”
Unless the Mamata Banerjee government heeds both medical and political advice and issues clear guidelines — perhaps a middle path between what is safer while not bringing the festival economy to a shuddering halt — a surge in Covid cases is all but inevitable. In the end, the chief minister will be judged at the ballot box by those who will live to recall either the management mess of such a crowded festival season, or her bravery in facing it head on to save people’s lives.
The author is an ex-Scotland Yard officer based out of London and Kolkata, and works as a historian and writer. His writings focus on governance, policing and politics. Views are personal.
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