The Calcutta high court order barring crowds at Durga Puja pandals in Kolkata is the best the judiciary could have done under the prevailing circumstances. Vaccines are just a few months away and India is witnessing a downward trend in Covid cases, after a prolonged first wave that peaked in mid-September. But festival crowds and the cooler weather are risk factors that could trigger an avoidable second spike with its attendant carnage. The Bengal government must fully implement the court order, instead of the strange ambivalence on display.
Merely exhorting devotees and revellers to attend virtual pujas, practise social distancing, wear masks and stay indoors if possible is disservice to the executive powers at the government’s disposal. Governments must lead the way so that people will follow. An action plan for Kolkata that improves upon the judicial order is urgently needed. This will require sufficient deployment of police, home guard and volunteers to help in crowd management. Without showing administrative will the court order will remain on paper, a travesty as governments are duty bound to safeguard health and public order.
A messy cocktail of toxic politics and heady populism isn’t helping. Patronising festivities is a predominant mode of TMC campaigning. Only recently both TMC, led by chief minister Mamata Banerjee, and BJP, egged on by national leaders, stoked large street agitations violating safety norms. One rule for netas, another for janta is hard to sell. Mamata is also haunted by past actions that allow BJP to accuse her of “minority appeasement”. She would fear that any “slighting” of Durga Puja would be grist for another bruising BJP onslaught.
Politicking governors like BS Koshyari, who attempted to politically corner Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray for delaying the opening of places of worship, set a bad precedent in this respect. Amid this dissonance, Union health minister Harsh Vardhan’s words of reason and caution on festivals and ostentatious celebrations were drowned out. Social distancing wouldn’t have been such a worry if only Indians followed a rigorous mask discipline, which east Asian countries did to successfully control the pandemic. State governments could have followed up loud proclamations on imposing fines against mask violators with actual enforcement. Now they must join Vardhan in communicating to citizens the good sense inherent in celebrating festivals away from crowds, and enforce curbs where necessary.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.