Mamata Government under Fire Amidst Covid-19 Crisis
While the Inter Ministerial Central Team in its report charged the West Bengal Government with ‘discrepancy in data', ‘low testing rate‘ and ‘non-cooperation', several associations of West Bengal doctors sent open letters to the Chief Minister, complaining about the gross under-testing and misreporting of data on the cause of death of COVID-19 patients.
The hashtag #BengalBurning has been trending in Twitter since the last couple of days. The Government of West Bengal failed to control the widespread communal clashes amidst the escalating cases of COVID-19 pandemic in the state. It has been under severe criticism from various sections of society for its sluggish actions to tackle the pandemic. Particularly, a letter from the Principal Secretary of the State Health and Family Welfare Department (WB-DHFW), Vivek Kumar, to the Union Health Secretary, Preeti Sudan, triggered the controversy. The Mamata Banerjee government is also facing the allegation of non-reporting the pandemic situation and data discrepancies in COVID-19 cases in the state.
On 4 May 2020, Kumar in his letter mentioned the total number of positive cases to be 931, which differed with the data shared by the State Government officials with the press reporters. According to the officials, the figure was 816. After this disparity in data came to light, there were no bulletins on 1 and 2 May till 7.45 pm. The State Chief Secretary, Rajiv Sinha, and Vivek Kumar along with other Government officials remained incommunicable. However, the Chief Secretary gave a statement on 4 April that due to some missing data, there were gaps in records, which were rectified later. Since then, the state government has been providing updates of actual figures. With the Chief Secretary admitting the Government’s failure to accumulate the exact data regarding positive cases and deaths, the State has seen a sudden escalation in the number of COVID cases, which stood at 2337 and deaths at 143 as on May 14.
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The IMCT (Inter Ministerial Central Team), in its report to the Union Home Ministry, charged the West Bengal Government with ‘discrepancy in data’, ‘low testing rate‘ and ‘non-cooperation’. In addition to IMCT’s report, several associations of West Bengal doctors sent open letters to the Chief Minister, complaining about the gross under-testing and misreporting of data on the cause of death of COVID-19 patients. They have also requested for opening of more testing laboratories and making provision for necessary protective gears for the doctors and healthcare workers as per WHO and ICMR guidelines.
West Bengal Doctor’s Forum Secretary, Dr Koushik Chaki, raised concerns about the precarious situation of health workers in Bengal.
According to him, as per the record of 8 May, more than 140 health workers were COVID positive and two doctors succumbed to SARS-CoV-2, while several others were in quarantine. He said, “If the situation continues like this, I am afraid there will be a severe shortage of healthcare workers”. However, the Chief Secretary promised to take necessary steps for the safety and security of the medical staff.
After facing criticisms for the poor handling of the pandemic crisis, the Bengal Government finally managed to speed up and performed nearly 47,615 sample tests (till May 11). However, it is still lagging behind Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan, where lakhs of tests have been conducted so far.
Besides these deficiencies, West Bengal Government has even failed to implement strict lockdown and social distancing measures. Several gatherings of large number of people have been reported from various parts of the state. There have been several incidents of large gatherings at Gopi Nagar, Murshidabad. In fact, there was even an incident of a clash between local people and the police force at Tikiapara, Howrah, for which administrative failures were blamed. Later, even more shockingly, Aloke Dasgupta, Assistant Commissioner of Howrah Police, led a so-called ‘peace rally’ in the same locality, where more than a hundred people marched through the streets flouting social distancing rules. Central officials condemned this move, asking how the police could not only allow but also a senior police official lead such a mass rally amidst shutdown. Several market areas across the state have also witnessed such defiance of rule.
Corruption in Public Distribution System
People in different parts of the state have been demonstrating and were on rampage as many are starving for days now due to unavailability of food grains in Public Distribution System (PDS). At the same time markets are also closed. There are allegations that a huge amount of PDS items are being siphoned off. Nearly 400 families in Murshidabad blocked a highway for nearly three hours for this same cause. Surprisingly, while the Chief Minister of Bengal has been claiming to have no scarcity of food, several reports are coming on a daily basis about irregularities in rationing.
Condition of migrant labourers of Bengal
Further, West Bengal Government is facing flak for its cold reactions towards the sufferings of its migrant labourers, one of the most affected segments of population in this crisis. Those are stranded far away from their homes, devoid of any food and money since the lockdown. In desperation, scores of labourers resorted to cover hundreds of miles on foot to reach their homes, while many others are still waiting for the government to act.
Indian Railways have arranged ‘Shramik Special Trains’ to ferry those stranded migrants back to their home since 1 May. Until now 468 special trains have been operated throughout the country. Gujarat and Kerala remained one of the top originating stations; Bihar and Uttar Pradesh tops the list among receiving states. However, even after several communications from different State Governments, where migrant labourers from West Bengal are stranded, the Bengal government remained unresponsive.
The Union Home Minister, Amit Shah sent a letter to the Bengal Chief Minister on 8 May pointing out the state’s its inactiveness to the plight of Bengal’s migrant labourers.
On this issue, the state Chief Secretary Rajiv Sinha told a Press meeting, “It won’t be proper to allow lakhs of stranded migrants labourers all in one go. They need to be brought back in phases because detailed planning has to be made. Else every effort made till date will go down the drain.” Thereafter, on 9 May, the state government gave clearance for 10 ‘Shramik Special Trains’ to bring back home the labourers.
There are numerous accusations against the State Government. Even after forming so many special committees and task forces for effective management of this catastrophe, the government is unable to fill the loopholes. People are dying for lack of proper treatment due to inadequate healthcare infrastructure. There is shortage of quarantine centres. Often, there are incidents of assault on frontline workers (health care personnel and police), which is further straining the already fragile situation. Proactive policies and their implementation, administrative efficiency and steadfast decision-making are needed to combat this unprecedented crisis. The state government needs to be more proactive and pragmatic to avert a disaster in the days ahead.