KOLKATA 6 MAY: As the infection of COVID-19 positive cases keeps changing from, breaking the chain of transmission to geometric progression of infectious disease, chief minister Mamata Banerjee has taken a back-seat keeping her bureaucrats at the forefront of pandemic management who is also holding press conferences regularly.
From dealing with the letters send by the Union government and facing the media -all such things are now being looked after by the bureaucrats of the state government.
Interestingly the Center too is providing letters to the chief secretary on the issues relating to COVID-19. The Center has sent 14 letters to the state government in a span of one and half month pointing out various loopholes in state machinery in dealing with the crisis.
Incidentally after one and half month of the lockdown, the figures published in the health bulletin of the state government matched with that of the Union government. The health bulletin mentioned 82 fresh cases were reported on Tuesday with 112 fresh positive cases reported on Wednesday . This is the first time hundred plus cases have been reported taking the total state’s tally to 1456 . The total deaths due to COVID19 stands at 72 till 6 May while the total deaths due to co- morbidity stands at 72 too. if we add both the deaths and the comorbidity then the figure comes to 144.
Alapan Bandhyopadhyay, state home secretary on Wednesday, said: “The fresh positive case in the past 24 hours is 112 and death in past 24 hours is four. One person has been discharged in the past 24 hours.”
Even two weeks ago chief minister Mamata Banerjee herself convened press conferences with chief secretary on her side. While she chose to answer political questions regarding COVID-19, she instructed chief secretary to update the media on the situation in the state. Last week chief secretary himself briefed the media and also took political questions, but Miss Banerjee was not present at the press conference.
On Monday, Rajiva Sinha gave an explanation to the discrepancies in reporting of COVID-19 positive and death cases and he claimed that earlier they were not taking real time figures for reporting of such cases as a result there were discrepancies in the figure uploaded by the Centre and the state. From Monday onwards they have already made the necessary changes in the reporting structure and there will be no discrepancies in data.
The admission came 40 days after BJP has been highlighting that Trinamool Congress is trying to suppress the figures of the death and the COVID19 positive cases. Even Joint Secretary Union health minister Law Agarwal has pointed out that the Center has noticed gap in reporting COVID19 data in some states (without naming any state) and urged them to bridge the gap.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, the home secretary Alapan Bandhyopadhyay convened press conferences and highlighted how PDS system has improved from the past when Banerjee decided to provide ration supply for 7.5 crore people upto three months free and 2 crore more people upto six months for free.
According to Bandhyopadhyay, while the state police and Kolkata police have already taken action against the ration dealers and till Wednesday 64 ration dealers have been suspended, 359 dealers have been showcaused and 25 ration dealers have been penalised.
It may be mentioned that allegations of hoarding of PDS by political party leaders have cropped up since Banerjee decided to provide ration supply free of cost . Even allegations of poor quality ration being supplied to people has cropped up too. Banerjee herself went on a surprise visit a month ago to some ration shops to look at the ground situation prevailing in the ration shops. She also removed Manoj Agarwal former food and food supplies secretary and put him on compulsory waiting.
A week ago Banerjee has formed a cabinet committee for better management of COVID-19 crisis, by keeping a few ministers including Partha Chatterjee, Chandrima Bhatacharya and Rajib Banerjee as its head and also kept chief sceretary and home seretary in the committee to provide strategy to contain the virus .
Sources in the Trinamool Congress said that Banerjee is now micro-managing the problems and her bureaucrats have been given the charge to deal with the pandemic from the front.
A senior official of the state government said: “Banerjee is participating in various administrative meetings regularly , and she has instructed chief secretary or home seceratry to deal with the media.”
Partha Chatterjee, state parliamentary affairs minister, and one of the member of the Covid committee said: “We do not have any intention to suppress the COVID-19 death figures .We have identified the loopholes in the reporting system of figures and necessary action has been taken.”
A senior TMC leader said: “Banerjee does not want to loose her ground after she saw violent reactions on social media regarding the mishandling of the crisis in the first phase and that’s why she quickly decided to work from the back and help politically and administratively in micromanaging the Covid crisis. She is now devoting more time on how to minimise the internal feud between various party workers so that fresh violence does not erupt over PDS distribution .
Sources in the TMC said that ahead of the Assembly election in 2021 she does not want to loose her ground and so she is taking a back seat. After Lok Sabha polls her protest on CAA and NRC has given her some momentum and she does not want to loose that by any chance and do not want to create a negative impact on the minds of the people.
While 2021 Assembly polls is still uncertain, because of the current COVID-19 situation in the state, Banerjee will not let her image go negative due to mishandling of the situation in the first phase.
According to Imankalyan Lahiri, a senior political analyst and professor of International Relations JU is of the opinion that both Modi and Mamata have taken a conscious decision to not come to the forefront in dealing with a Covid crisis.
Banerjee very well understood that lockdown or quarantine is not the final answer to the crisis.
Even after lockdown, cases will happen and the government does not want to be identified with the failure to contain the virus. The primary aim of the government is to detached themselves from the negative effects of the virus by sustaining their efforts to contain it.
While the state government’s views and holding press conferences has been handled by the bureaucrats in Bengal, Modi too has left the bureaucrats to handle the situation. Though he interacted politically with the chief ministers he didn’t find it wishful to address the nation further and left it to the bureaucrats to formulate guidelines to be followed subsequent to expiry of the second lockdown on 3 May on exit policy.”
West Bengal government versus Center
The spat between state and Center over handling of COVID-19 crisis continues with the Union home secretary sending two letters to West Bengal government on the overall management of the crisis on Wednesday. From taking care of the migrant labourers according to Union government guideline, to police’s inability to carry forward with strict lockdown in some pockets of Bengal, the sorry state of affairs dealing with the pandemic has been pointed out in his letter to chief secretary.
In one of the letters the Union Home secretary Ajay Bhalla pointed out after getting information from the Inter-Ministerial Central Team (IMCT) team members, it was found that West Bengal is characterised by low testing in proportion to the population and high rate of mortality of 13.2 percent , which is a reflection of poor surveillance , detection and testing in the state . The letter also mentioned the need for random testing in crowded clusters.
Bandhyopadhyay, however, said on Wednesday’s press conference that the issues raised by the Center will be addressed accordingly, he also mentioned that one and half months ago there was one testing laboratories and now it has increased to 14 testing laboratories , which resulted in increase in the number of tests from 402 per day to 2000 per day.
Union home secretary in his letter also mentioned about lockdown violations noticed in several parts of Kolkata and instances of over-crowding noticed in some bazaars with poor sanitation facilities. Also the letter highlighted that PPE and N95 masks provided by the state government does not meet the ICMR standard.
In the other letter the Union Home Secretary pointed out that he is yet to receive the compliance report wherein directions were given to allow cross-border, land -border transportation of essential goods through Indo-Nepal, Indo-Bhutan and Indo-Bangladesh border. It was also mentioned that goods traffic through border -crossing between India and Bangladesh in the state of West Bengal has not resumed yet. As a result a large number of trucks carrying essential supplies bound for Bangladesh are stranded at different border crossing points. A number of drivers of such vehicles while returning from Bangladesh, have also not been allowed to cross the border and are stranded there.
Bandhyopadhyay replied: “The West Bengal government will look after these issues and will address the problem soon.”
According to Bandhyopadyay the state government is fully committed to help the stranded people as despite logistical problems, the state was in contact touch with all the chief secretaries of Bihar and Rajasthan and bring them back to Bengal and send them in nearby quarantine centers.