Calcutta HC bars pandal-entry for visitors across the state
Visitors will not be allowed inside Durga Puja pandals this year, Calcutta High Court has said in a ruling that has spread a degree of relief among those bracing for a post-festival explosion in Covid-19 cases.
The order by Justices Sanjib Banerjee and Arijit Banerjee is being hailed as the right step and one that is expected to go a long way in hammering home the gravity of the threat. The division bench laid down a series of measures to be taken in and around pandals to prevent overcrowding.
“Life has not been normal for the human species since about March 2020 and it may have been better if restrictions were put in place as to how the Durga Puja festivities would be celebrated this year…. In public interest, all pandals where Durga Puja is being celebrated this year are made no-entry zones for members of the public,” the bench said.
Areas within 10 metres of a big pandal or five metres of a small pandal will be barricaded as “no-entry zones”.
The idol can be viewed from 10 metres “beyond the furthest extremities of the pandal” on any side at the big pujas, and from 5 metres at the smaller pujas.
The state director-general of police and the Calcutta police commissioner have been directed to file compliance reports before the court on November 5.
The bench underscored its constructive role, saying: “This order must not be seen to be a finding against the State for the inadequacy of the measures attempted to be put in place, but only as a supplement to ensure the proper implementation of such measures by the limited police personnel, volunteers and other administrative officials and workers.”
Politically, the Mamata Banerjee government is now freed of a dilemma. The chief minister faced a stark choice: stop the pujas on her own or handle the issue with kid gloves and risk a spike in cases — either way, the BJP would have sought to reap political mileage.
But administratively, the perception in the government is that if a similar court order had come earlier, it would have spared the pujas, especially the smaller ones, a great deal of effort. A plea by some puja committees for a review of the order is not ruled out.
Several puja organisers in Calcutta said it would have been better had such restrictions come earlier rather than three days before the Puja. They said they had worked overtime to raise funds in a crisis year and build pandals abiding by the government’s restrictions.
The question also remains how the Rs 50,000 grant, two-thirds of which the court had earmarked for safety features such as sanitisers in a separate case, would be used.
The high court appreciated the government’s efforts and said there was only so much the state could do.
“There can be no doubt that appropriate guidelines have been prepared by the state and individual aspects, such as the activities within the pandals, prohibition of carnivals and entertainment programmes and the like, have been extensively referred to in the guidelines. There is also no doubt that police personnel and administrative authorities across the state will put their best foot forward to ensure that the guidelines are followed just as all puja organisers are expected to adhere to the same,” the court said.
It referred to the unrelenting onslaught of Covid while underscoring the need for caution.
“The virus refuses to go away. Though the healthcare facilities in the state have been augmented, with the limited resources available, the state can only do so much. In such a situation, it may be judicious to err on the side of prevention than to allow the festivities to go on without any checks and repent later that adequate resources may not be available to provide for the massive cure that may become necessary.”
The court acknowledged that implementation may be difficult, given the police’s limited manpower. “If the guidelines issued cannot be implemented in the lead-up to the pujas and the overcrowding in the markets in big city Calcutta and the small towns elsewhere in the state has remained by and large unchecked, the same cannot be allowed to be repeated over the four or five days during the Durga Puja celebrations.”
The state’s advocate-general prayed for a stay on the high court order but it was turned down. Some government lawyers felt the government would not mind the order, given that the court had put a leash on overcrowding in and around the pandals.
The order came on a PIL filed by advocate Saurav Chatterjee that alleged that although the number of people affected by Covid in Bengal is rising every day, the state has allowed organisers to hold Durga Puja as usual. “Instead of restraining the organisers from holding Puja, the state government had issued permission to all the committees,” counsel Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya told the court, moving the petition on behalf of Chatterjee.