Calcutta HC to Bengal govt: Use Durga Puja funds to control Corona and not for entertainment

KOLKATA 16 OCT: The Calcutta High Court directed the West B Bengal Government to use the fund granted to all the Durga Puja clubs for improving policing conditions and procuring masks, sanitisers and face shields in an interim order on Friday. The court further said that the government fund can not be used for holding musical soirees, or any entertainment events at any of the clubs. The court also instructed the clubs to include women in the community policing to raise awareness on the COVID-19 precautions. 

Justice Sanjib Banerjee ordered that 25 per cent of the Durga Puja money should be used for strengthening the police. The Bench also advised that the remaining 75 per cent should be used for masks procurement, sanitisers and face shields. The Bench also directed that purchase bills have to be submitted to the authorities for audit. The Court further ordered a utilisation certificate with proper bills and invoices of all expenses incurred at the end of the puja to be submitted by the puja committees. Later, the Directorate General of Police would file a report with the Calcutta High Court including the same.

The public interest in public money

This direction was followed by public interest litigation that was filed a few days back by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) leader Sourav Dutta. Dutta had challenged the relaxations made for the puja committees and raised questions on the use of Rs 50,000 aid to each of the 37,000 Puja clubs in Bengal. 

The CITU leader and social activist Dutta in his PIL asked the court to stop the distribution of ‘public money’ to a religious community. According to his PIL, it is the basic duty of any religious community to celebrate and organise any religious activities. He emphasised that such an expenditure falls outside the periphery of the Indian Constitution. 

Calcutta HC asks State

The Calcutta High Court sought an explanation from the state government on Thursday to justify the Rs 50,000 financial aid doled out to the Durga Puja committees in Bengal. The division bench comprising justices Sanjib Banerjee and Arijit Banerjee further asked the Bengal government whether similar donations are provided to other festival organisers on festivals like Eid or not. 

Meanwhile, the court pointed out that such donations are a part of public money and asked whether the state government has laid down any guidelines for the expenditure. The court also questioned if there was a blueprint ready for crowd management during Durga Puja to contain the coronavirus from spreading.

State responds to Calcutta HC

The Bengal government while responding to the Calcutta High Court’s questions, said that the financial aid was to be utilised for raising public awareness about the pandemic precautions and to procure masks, sanitisers and face shields. 

Furthermore, the court asked in such a case, why does, not the state government directly distribute masks and sanitisers to all the Durga Puja clubs instead of the money. 

The Opposition Opines

The Opposition parties welcomed the Calcutta HC’s decision and claimed that Didi was indeed spending public money without any accountability. The HC’s order seemed to give temporary relief to the Opposition parties. 

Sujan Chakraborty, a CPI(M) leader, said, “We welcome the Court’s decision. We feel that there should be accountability in the utilisation of public money. At a time like this when the state government has already made claims that they are reeling under a financial crisis, such measures amidst COVID-19 pandemic just seemed only unfair.”

Dilip Ghosh, BJP state president, said, ”This is another state government scam. By disbursing public money without asking how the money would be spent, amounts to a mis-utilisation of public money. And it should be stopped. We welcome the Court’s decision.”

Mamata Banerjee on Puja allowances and donations spree

Earlier last month, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had announced a monthly allowance of Rs 1,000 each and free accommodation to around 8,000 Sanatan Brahmin priests and Rs 50,000 Puja fund in Bengal. 

The petitioner pointed out that the state government’s decision to dole out such monthly funds and free housing to Hindu priests and then further the Durga Puja fund simply is against the fundamentals of secularism. 

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