They vow not to allow outsiders to their pandals amid fears of surge in COVID cases
As the fear of surge in COVID-19 cases due to Durga Puja celebrations grips Kolkata harder, at least three crowd-pulling neighbourhoods have announced that outsiders won’t be allowed into their pandals this year.
Since neighbourhoods try to outdo each other in terms of decoration and themes, pandal-hopping is an integral part of the festivities that last five days, involving the movement of hundreds of thousands of people. At the time of the pandemic, pandal-hopping can be highly dangerous for a city like Kolkata, where people are already out shopping for Puja in large numbers.
The indifference on the part of the State government and the public alike is making doctors repeatedly appeal to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to ensure restraint. Under the umbrella of Joint Platform of Doctors, they once again issued a statement on Friday saying that since they had not received any response from either the Chief Minister or the Chief Secretary to their pleas, they were once again urging all political parties and puja committees to advocate restraint.
“We even submitted an online petition with 15,000 signatories. But in spite of our appeals, preparations for Puja and shopping are going on in full swing. It is not as if the people concerned are not able to gauge the risk, but they are simply turning a blind eye and on the contrary are doing everything possible to enhance the fervour,” the doctors’ body said.
They pointed out that if there was a surge in the number of infections, hospitals would quickly run out of beds and ventilators and even human resources, and that the authorities should act while there was still time.
Not all are ignoring their appeals. The Puja at Santosh Mitra Square in the heart of Kolkata, which draws massive crowds, has decided to keep their pandal out of bounds for visitors. “Keeping the COVID-19 situation in mind, [we have] taken a radical decision. Only people from our neighbourhood will be allowed entry. This is a difficult decision but we believe that a festival cannot be more valuable than human lives,” its organisers said in a statement.
Two other highly popular Pujas — Jodhpur Park in south Kolkata and Debdaru Phatak in Behala — have also decided to bar the entry of outsiders.
Considering that Assembly elections are barely six months away, the State government, it appears, does not want to make any move that dampens the festive spirit. If anything, it granted — obviously with an eye on the elections — ₹50,000 each to every Puja committee in West Bengal, a decision now questioned by the Calcutta High Court.
“We have cautioned the State government and the political parties. Since they have not paid any heed to our appeal, the blame for the imminent rise in COVID-19 cases will be on them,” said Dr. Punyabrata Goon of the Joint Platform of Doctors. “Ultimately, doctors and other healthcare workers will have to bear the load of patient treatment.”