KOLKATA: The surge in shopper crowd every evening at Hatibagan, New Market and Gariahat has left Puja organizers in cold sweat. While they have time and again committed to police officers that they will enforce physical-distancing measures at the pandals, senior functionaries of clubs that organize the Pujas are spending sleepless nights over how to keep the promise if pandal hoppers descend in large numbers. After the concerns were relayed to police officers on Tuesday, the latter drew up a strategy that includes wider road space for pedestrians during Puja and strict access control at pandals.
“We are adhering to all measures that have been laid out. But beyond what’s known is the X-factor — the crowd count. We cannot predict how many people will turn up and when. We just hope and pray people will be cautious when they step out and avoid crowds, even if it means missing a pandal that is on their must-visit list,” said Kingshuk Maitra, secretary of Suruchi Sangha in New Alipore, one of the biggest draws in the city.
Last year, the Puja drew 5 lakh visitors a day or 35 lakhs in a week. Even if half the number of people turn up this year over 10 days, it will mean 1.7 lakh people a day. And that is too much for 250 volunteers to control.
At Hatibagan Sarbajanin Durgotsav, secretary Saswata Bose is experiencing early signs of panic as he sees a sea of shoppers descend in the neighbourhood every evening. “If Puja shopping is any indication, we are heading for an extremely difficult situation. If everyone, who has shopped hits the streets to pandal, there will be pandemonium. I am very scared over what might happen, both during the Puja and thereafter,” said Bose, who is also secretary of Forum for Durgotsav, the platform of the leading Durga Puja organisers in Kolkata.
In central Kolkata, Santosh Mitra Square Sarbajanin Durgotsav secretary Sajal Ghosh said they have decided to shut the entry if there is a crowd surge. “It is not that Covid will strike only inside the pandals. If people queue up even outside, Covid can spread. It’s better we shut down if there is a crowd surge,” said Ghosh.
At Singhi Park near Gariahat, organisers are so worried that they have asked police to arrest revellers if they violate Covid norms during the festival. “Usually, Puja is a time for bonhomie when we take everything in good spirit and look the other way if there are minor aberrations. But not this time. It will be unmanageable if the kind of crowd that is turning up to shop at Gariahat also visits the pandal,” said functionary Prasanta Sarkar.
During the coordination meetings held by Kolkata Police in various divisions, officers said they had been approached by various Puja organisers anxious about crowd control. On their part, the cops have altered their strategy by widening the walkway for pandal hoppers.
“Usually, we confine pedestrians in a narrow channel or push crowds to parallel streets to keep a road free for traffic. Thus, to keep D H Road in Behala free, we used to drive pedestrians to Roy Bahadur Road or James Long Sarani. Similarly, we used to ensure that the main Ultadanga-Sobvabazar link didn’t get disrupted. This year though, more space will be reserved for pedestrian movememt. We are also working on measures to control the crowd well ahead of the pandals,” said a cop.