The war of words between the Centre and Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal government rose by a few more notches on Tuesday after the Union Home Secretary wrote a second letter to the state “directing the chief secretary of West Bengal to comply with the directions of the MHA (Ministry of Home Affairs)”.
“It has been brought to the notice of this ministry that both the IMCTs (Inter-Ministerial Central Teams) at Kolkata and Jalpaiguri have not been provided with the requisite cooperation by the state and local authorities. In fact they have been specifically restrained from making any visits, interacting with health-care professionals and assessing the ground-level situation,” said the letter to Bengal Chief Secretary Rajiv Sinha. “This amounts to obstructing the implementation of the orders issued by the central government under the Disaster Management Act and equally binding directions of the Supreme Court.”
“You are, therefore, directed to comply with the MHA order dated 19th April, 2020, and make all necessary arrangements for the IMCTs to carry out such responsibilities as have been entrusted to them,” it added.
The Union Home Ministry on Monday had said the COVID-19 situation was “especially serious” in Mumbai, Pune, Indore, Jaipur, Kolkata and a few other places in West Bengal, and had formed six IMCTs for on-the-spot assessment and for issuing necessary directions to the four states — Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and West Bengal.
While one central team arrived in Kolkata, another reached Jalpaiguri district on Monday.
One of the central teams later visited certain areas of Kolkata escorted by the Border Security Force (BSF) and state police personnel. The central team was seen coming out of the BSF office in south Kolkata at around 4.45pm. It then visited certain areas of the city.
The Trinamool Congress (TMC) earlier on Tuesday had dubbed the ICMTs’ visit as “adventure tourism”, questioning why teams were not sent to states with much higher number of coronavirus cases and hotspots.
The two IMCT teams were reportedly confined to their accommodation since their arrival. IMCT Kolkata team’s head, Apoorva Chandra, said unlike teams that have gone to Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, his team received no cooperation from the Bengal government.
“They were given the same notice as the state of West Bengal, but they received no problems,” said Chandra, an additional secretary rank officer in the Ministry of Defence, adding that the teams on their arrival were assured of cooperation but then things changed.
“We also met the chief secretary last evening at Nabanna (the state secretariat), we were assured we will again have a meeting and we will be going out for being taken around. But today we were informed there are some issues and we will not be going out,” Chandra said.
Earlier addressing reporters via a Zoom conference, TMC MPs Derek O’Brien and Sudip Bandyopadhyay said Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had been informed about the team’s visit three hours after its arrival, which was unacceptable.
“The ICMT team is on an adventure tourism. The CM was told about the team’s visit three hours after the team landed,” said O’Brien.
O’Brien questioned why central teams did not visit states like Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh that have higher number of coronavirus cases and many more hotspots. Why central teams are being sent to West Bengal which does not appear in the list of the top 10 states in terms of infection, he asked.
“The Centre has to clarify. Why the chief minister was informed after the team had arrived? In a federal structure, you have to first inform the state government. The motive behind sending such teams is not yet clear. It needs to be clarified first,” he said.
Bandyopadhyay, TMC’s leader in Lok Sabha, hoped good sense would prevail and the Centre would henceforth consult the respective state before taking such a decision.
“We have kept politics behind and want a joint fight against the pandemic. Do not take our graciousness for granted, we too can talk in the political language. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah should also leave politics behind and should not take Bengal’s pledge for a united fight in tackling the pandemic for granted,” O’Brien said. “What the central government has done by sending central teams is nothing but an insult to the people of the state.”
Responding to a question on “low rate of testing” in the state, Bandyopadhyay said that 425 tests are conducted everyday in West Bengal and from Tuesday the number would be increased to 600. He claimed Bengal initially had a dearth of testing kits sent by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
Despite the state abiding by all the norms set by ICMR and the central government and doing its best in curbing the disease, West Bengal has been targeted by the Centre and the BJP, the Lok Sabha member said.
“We would urge the Centre not to dilute the joint fight against COVID-19. The state government has followed all the rules and norms set by ICMR and the Union government. But the Union government without informing the state government had sent teams to the state government. It is not acceptable. Such steps are not only against the basic tenants of federalism but also tantamount to diluting the joint fight against the COVID crisis,” Bandyopadhyay told reporters.
Taking umbrage at the Centre for sending teams to assess the “serious” COVID-19 situation in the state, Banerjee on Monday wrote a letter to Modi underscoring the “unilateral” and “undesirable” action, keeping her government in the dark.
Both the parliamentary leaders said it was not a question of “state vs state” and appealed to the Centre to cooperate with the states. They said once proper protocols are followed, then the state would be happy to coordinate with the government.
(With inputs from PTI)