Almost 30 hours after an Inter-Ministerial Central Team (IMCT) landed in Kolkata, the West Bengal government facilitated the visit of the members on Tuesday to take stock of the COVID-19 situation. The team remained at the BSF headquarters in the city and was unable to move out till late in the afternoon.
The arrival of the two teams from Delhi on Monday allegedly without prior information to the State government, sparked off a tussle between the Centre and the State. While one team landed in the State capital Kolkata, the other is in Jalpaiguri district in north Bengal.
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With the team unable to move into the field, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) sent a fresh letter to the State government, asking it to “make all necessary arrangements for the IMCTs” even as the State government maintained its stand that such a team should have been sent only after consultations.
In the letter to West Bengal Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha, Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla said the two IMCTs had not been provided with the requisite co-operation by the State and local authorities.“It was informed that they have been specifically restrained from making any visits, interacting with health professionals, and assessing the ground level situation. This amounts to obstructing the implementation of the Orders issued by the Central Government under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, and equally binding directions of the Supreme Court of India,” Mr. Bhalla said.
The teams were deputed under the authority conferred on the Centre under Section 35 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005. “The Supreme Court, in its Order dated 31.03.2020, has also observed that the State Governments would faithfully comply with the directives and orders issued by the Union of India in letter and spirit in the interest of public safety. In view of above, an obligation is imposed on the State Governments in the interest of preventing the spread of COVID-19 that must be strictly followed,” the letter said.
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The MHA’s order on April 19, directing the deployment of the ICMTs in West Bengal, had pointed out that it is “clear to the Central government that the situation is especially serious in Kolkata, Howrah, Medinipur East, 24 Parganas North Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Jalpaiguri districts in the State of West Bengal”.
However, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had expressed strong objections to the visit of central teams and wrote a letter to the Prime Minister calling the development “unilateral”.
It was only at 4.30 p.m. that members of IMCT were able to leave the BSF headquarters and visit certain areas in southern parts of Kolkata.
West Bengal Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha met the representatives of ICMT earlier in the day. He later told journalists at the State secretariat, that “confrontation between the State and Centre is not desirable, but it is not correct only to blame the State for it”.
“They urged that they want to visit certain areas in the city. We said we will provide local officers. Our government stand remains in a set up like that Centre should have consulted us before sending these teams,” Mr. Sinha said.
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The Chief Secretary said all facts have been provided to the IMCTs including to the team in north Bengal.
Earlier in the day, Apurva Chandra, Additional Secretary, Department of Defence, heading the IMCT, an additional secretary in the defence ministry, speaking to media persons, said, “We have been deployed by the Centre and our order of deployment says the State government shall provide logistic support to us.... I have been in touch with the chief secretary and seeking his support since the time I landed here... I met him on Monday. But on Tuesday, we were informed that there were some issues, so we will not be going out.”
Before the central team at Kolkata started its field visits Apurva Chandra, Additional Secretary, Department of Defence, heading the IMCT, had told journalists that they were assured that they will be making field visits on Tuesday. However, the State government then informed the team that the visits would not take place during the day.
“We have made clear we will going out with State government liaison officer, because our work will be effective only if the State government comes with us,” Mr. Chandra said.
Trinamool targets Centre
During the day senior leaders of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), party leader in Lok Sabha Sudip Bandyopadhyay and leader in Rajya Sabha Derek O' Brien targeted the Centre on the visit of the ICMTs.
Mr O’ Brien had described the visit of ICMT as “ adventure tourism” and added that when States including Bengal are going all out in fighting the coronavirus. “Unfortunately, central govt is going all out-fighting the States!”
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Party MP and the Chief Minister’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee accused the Centre of playing with the “lives of Bengalis”. Referring to reports that testing kits by NICED ICMR were giving ambiguous results, Mr. Banerjee said, “You cripple GoWB with faulty kits from ICMR & then send IMCTs to monitor GoWB's performance while keeping the State Govt in dark. In the name of combating the COVID-19 crisis, you're playing with the lives of Bengalis while your leaders use skewed testing no.s for fake propaganda,” he tweeted.
(inputs from Delhi bureau)