Calcutta, Sept. 4: Mamata Banerjee today added her formidable leadership skills to the fight against dengue, acknowledging that a problem exists, advising against panic and listing a series of do-it-yourself measures to reassure citizens.
What Mamata said in her inimitable style was in itself not illuminating but the fact that the chief minister devoted 35 minutes to a topic her lieutenants have been trying to downplay was an unmistakable sign that she had read the mood sweeping the city and its outskirts.
Dengue has so far killed 11 persons in Calcutta alone — the official figure is still three —but the mayor and some other Trinamul leaders have been blaming vested interests and citing the futility of fighting the vagaries of nature. Such statements — perhaps appropriate in academic debates but incongruous in the middle of an outbreak — created an impression that the government was insensitive to the plight of the people.
Mamata sought to address such concerns today. “Any death — be it from dengue, accidents or any other unfortunate incident — is painful. But we have to find a constructive way out,” she said. “Saving lives is important now. Anybody who dies could be a member of our family.”
Armed with a bundle of papers, she strode to the podium at the state secretariat and delivered for 35 minutes what could be termed one of the most measured and well-prepared statements since she took over as chief minister.
Some television channels picked out a comment she made on dieting by youngsters and sought to draw a parallel with Narendra Modi’s jibe on perceived reluctance among girls to drink milk, but Mamata’s reference was part of a larger advisory to the people to build immunity against seasonal diseases.
The chief minister took care to strike a balance — neither whipping up fear nor playing down the risks — and sought to send the message that the government machinery had been activated.
“Be careful, there is no need to panic,” she said. “Emergency services have started, the CMC’s clinics are also working. Anybody who has fever should be immediately sent to the government hospitals for tests, treatment.”
The no-nonsense statement was in sharp contrast with what mayor Sovan Chatterjee had told this newspaper on Sunday: “Come to the CMC clinic and you won’t die.”
The Telegraph report on Tuesday that portrayed the condition of three such clinics seemed to be playing on Mamata’s mind when she said the CMC centres “may not have an impressive appearance like Belle Vue and Woodlands but work gets done at the clinics for the poor”.
Unlike yesterday, when she had referred to “false propaganda”, Mamata today steered clear of conspiracy theories though she said “panic is being created” in some areas.
After holding an emergency meeting with chief secretary Samar Ghosh, home secretary Basudeb Banerjee, health secretary Sanjay Mitra, urban development secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay, urban development minister Firhad Hakim, mayor Chatterjee and Calcutta municipal commissioner Khalil Ahmed, she emerged from her room.
“You know there are many dengue cases being reported. Not just in Bengal or India but southeastern countries also. I have been told that there is a recurrence of cases after some years,” the chief minister started her address.
Then she launched into a detailed description of symptoms of dengue and the defence against it. It may not always be ideal for a chief minister to do what civic officials are supposed to do but the CMC had brought the situation to such a head by slipping into denial mode.
“A lot of precious time got lost as the establishment was in a state of denial. Instead of quibbling over the numbers and the need for MAC-ELISA tests for dengue confirmation, they should have tried to address the problem by preventing the spread of the disease,” said a critical care expert.
Mamata tried to contend that the outbreak in Bengal was milder in comparison to other states. “There have been 1,869 cases in Karnataka, 2,683 in Kerala, 4,675 in Tamil Nadu and 638 in Bengal… In 2005, there was a dengue outbreak in Bengal with 6,273 affected and left 34 dead,” Mamata said, reading out from a sheet.
Surjya Kanta Mishra, Opposition leader and a doctor, criticised — also in a measured tone — the way the government was trying to handle the situation till Mamata stepped in. “A government cannot prevent a person from being infected by dengue. So, why should it refuse to admit that dengue has struck large parts of the state? The need of the hour is to take steps to prevent its spread,” Mishra said.
The chief minister reminded citizens: “We don’t clear the water accumulated in refrigerators, air-conditioners, washing machines, flowerpots. These should be cleaned daily. Everybody is busy these days. Men and women both are working.”
Mamata appeared reluctant to take penal measures. “In Mumbai, they have imposed fines because many deaths took place. They have started a door-to-door drive. We can also start a door-to-door drive but people may not like if I go and inspect their refrigerators.”
While the CMC sweeps streets, markets, shops, eateries, hawkers and phuchkawalas should help keep the surroundings clean. “They must keep a dustbin to collect waste and give it to the CMC staff.”
She also uttered a truth that cannot be disputed. “Once a wall is painted, I have seen in two days stains from paan. Why should this be? This is our city, our state. If we keep it clean, we will stay well.”