Covid-19 curbs hit Durga Puja in Bengal, Capital
People would not be allowed within a five-metre distance for small pandals and 10 metre for big pandals, the high court ordered, while expressing concern at the crowd control measures and widely circulated reports of large crowds thronging the city’s major markets and pandals in violation of Covid-19 protocols.Updated: Oct 20, 2020, 00:47 IST
Fears of Covid-19 transmission forced the curtailment of one of India’s grandest festivals on Monday, with authorities in Delhi and Kolkata drastically downsizing Durga Puja celebrations that attract hundreds of thousands of people — a step that underlined public health concerns ahead of the month-long festive season.
In the Capital, the five-day festival will mostly be a private affair bereft of theme pandals, towering idols, nightlong excursions and food adventures, with organisers – including those in the hub of festivities, CR Park – deciding to suspend public celebrations, bar visitors, and move rituals online.
Greater Kailash (GK) MLA and senior Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Saurabh Bharadwaj said the decision was taken in a meeting on Monday morning.
“Around 12 Durga Puja committees from Chittaranjan Park, GK2, GK1, Alaknanda and Kalkaji attended the meeting. It has been unanimously decided that Durga Puja celebrations will be suspended this year due to the pandemic. Most of the population of CR Park and members of puja committees are senior citizens and it is important that they remain indoors and avoid contact with unknown people in pandals,” Bharadwaj said.
In West Bengal, the Calcutta high court banned visitors from pandals and ordered police to set up barricades outside the structures that have already attracted many thousands of devotees who flouted distancing and mask guidelines – three days before the puja celebrations kick off.
People would not be allowed within a five-metre distance for small pandals and 10 metre for big pandals, the high court ordered, while expressing concern at the crowd control measures and widely circulated reports of large crowds thronging the city’s major markets and pandals in violation of Covid-19 protocols.
“In public interest, all pandals whereat Durga Puja is being celebrated this year are made no-entry zones for the members of the public,” stated the division bench of justices Sanjib Banerjee and Arijit Banerjee. They added that the measure may not be able to control the spread of the pandemic if people came out on the streets in big numbers.
The court’s order – which came in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) and was implemented from Monday night – is a big setback for organisers of the 37,000-odd pujas and artisans who spend months painstakingly building towering structures and fashioning the idols of Durga and her four children.
A popular pandal in Kolkata easily attracts upwards of a hundred thousand visitors each night.
“All the puja committees will incur losses to the tune of hundreds of crores of rupees as all preparations have been made,” said Soumen Dutta, a puja organiser from north Kolkata. “We are staring at huge financial losses.”
The decision to curtail Durga Puja celebrations come at a time India has crossed 7.5 million infections and lost 114,000 people to the disease.
Experts warn that the public nature of the five-day festival – hundreds of thousands of people are often out all night, taking public transport to go from pandal to pandal, jostling with hundreds of others in a cramped humid space for a glimpse of the idol – can fuel the virus that spreads through air and bodily contact.
Dr GC Khilnani, former head of the department of pulmonology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), said the number of cases is likely to increase as more physical interaction happens during the festive season. “The increase in the number of cases will be seen 10 to 14 days after the festival. By then, it will also be the time for Diwali. Not only higher number of cases, the increase in the pollution levels is likely to cause more severe disease with many needing ICU care,” he said.
Concerns about the upcoming festival season – which include Durga Puja, Dussehra and Diwali – have mounted after experts blamed the Onam celebrations in August for the recent spike in cases in Kerala. Similar worries forced downsizing of other festivals such as Ganesh Chaturthi, Eid and Jagannath Rath Yatra.
Organisers and authorities in Delhi decided to suspend most rituals associated with the festival. Bhog (the ceremonial food offering to the goddess, distributed among devotees) will be home-delivered and pushpanjali (ceremonial first offering of flowers to the goddess), aarti (evening religious rituals) and donations have been shifted online. Puja committees will even post the text of all holy chants for devotees.
The CR Park Kali Mandir Society, which attracts 200,000 people each year, has tied up with a Direct-To-Home service and a local cable operator to broadcast the rituals.
“Only for religious reasons, a small kalash/ghat Puja will be attended by 10-15 committee members. This will ensure the continuity of puja by these samitis. I have also requested the district administration and local police to help the puja committees in stopping any outsiders entering these areas,” Bharadwaj added.
In Kolkata – where Durga Puja is also a ₹50,000 crore industry that receives support from the state government and private players – the HC order evoked mixed reactions.
“While in smaller pandals, 15 members will be allowed, in the case of bigger pandals, a maximum of 25 members will be allowed. The names of the entrants will have to be decided in advance and cannot be changed daily,” said advocate Sabyasachi Chatterjee, who represented the petitioner Ajay Kumar De.
The police brass will submit an affidavit by November 5 detailing how the court order was implemented.
During the hearing, the court raised questions about crowd-control measures and questioned how 30,000-odd police personnel would tackle 400,000 people – the typical crowd at major attractions. The state government said it will add more personnel but the judges expressed doubt over organising a festival when schools and colleges were closed.
Durga Puja is a major event in the social and religious calendar of Bengal and people from all over the state come to Kolkata to see pandals.
But the state reported a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases after puja shopping began and crowds swelled in markets. On Sunday, the state reported 3,983 new Covid-19 cases, including 813 infections in Kolkata alone – the highest in the state. The positivity rate – the ratio of the number of cases to that of tests — shot up from 6.6% on September 5 to 9.1% on Sunday.
Some politicians criticised the order.
“It is a very disheartening order and has come as a setback for the puja committee and the citizens. As the order is directed towards the state government, the administration will issue directions in a day or two after going through the order. But we can’t do anything which would dampen the festive spirit of lakhs of people. At the same time we have to ensure that people are safe so that the virus doesn’t spread,” said Saugata Roy, a senior Trinamool Congress MP.
Union minister Babul Supriyo welcomed the order. “None of the pujas patronised by ministers and senior leaders of the TMC government were maintaining any social distancing among the visitors, we have seen. Bengal is now among the top states when to comes to spread of the virus,” said Supriyo.
“Durga Puja is a festival but we have to understand that this year situations are different as there is a pandemic. Community spread has started. I don’t know how the state government will implement the order,” said Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, West Bengal Congress chief.
The Forum for Durgotsab, an umbrella body of 350 festival organisers, said that it will call a meeting of its members on Tuesday to discuss the matter and way forward.