In an interview to Cuckoo News editor Dola Mitra, Professor Om Prakash Mishra, core committee member, Trinamool Congress, addresses charges that West Bengal bungled handling of the Covid-19 crisis. He counters allegations of the state government’s “lack of preparedness” during the super cyclone Amphan, which ripped through Calcutta and coastal areas in the middle of the pandemic in May and rues political rivals’ “lack of unity” in these trying times.
Your comments on the shocking incident of an eighteen-year-old boy dying of Covid-19 after being refused admission by several Kolkata hospitals. It is alleged that his parents drove around the city of Kolkata pleading with doctors to get him admitted and finally when Kolkata Medical College and Hospital admitted him, it was too late. He died soon after.
The death of eighteen-year-old Subhrajit Chattopadhyay is heartbreaking. Premature deaths has been one of the most painful realities of the Covid-19 pandemic the world over. Just yesterday, we lost Debdatta Ray, a 38-year-old deputy magistrate, who was at the forefront of the fight against the disease in West Bengal. Mamata Banerjee has expressed her deepest condolences to her family and we are all extremely saddened by the news. Medical fraternities and governments globally are battling the pandemic. Deaths of very young people too often could not be avoided. At the same time there is no room for complacency or negligence. Aspects of medical negligence, if any, need to be looked in to in cases such as Subhrajit’s. Authorities at the hospital, where he was first taken and at the private nursing home where he was later taken should answer questions related to non-admission. It was only much later that he was taken to Calcutta Medical College Hospital, where doctors tried their best to treat him but possibly it was too late. All this should be probed and accountably fixed. I understand the process has started.
….the state government has bungled the way it handled the Covid-19 crisis.
On the contrary, in dealing with the crisis chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s approach has been dynamic. From day-one, that is on March 18, when the first case of Covid-19 was registered in Calcutta, she swung into action. She was one of the first Indian chief ministers to impose a lockdown in her state, even before the Centre announced the nationwide clampdown. From the word “go” she has held day-to-day meetings with physicians, doctors, hospital workers and healthcare officials for regular appraisals of the situation. She has been hands-on and pro-active. The number of Covid-19 hospitals has been increased and is now 79 with 49 testing centres. The testing capacity has been revamped and the daily tests currently hover in the region of 10,000 and 11,000. Attempts are on to improve on this number. The chief minister has repeatedly issued instructions that not a single patient ought to be turned away. When these orders are flouted, she deals with the lapse in the strictest terms.
….ordeal of the migrant workers.
It must also be pointed out when questions of “mishandling” come up that the Centre has put a massive strain on Mamata Banejree’s plans of dealing with the crisis. The Central government had announced the lockdown on March 24, giving only four hours’ notice to the entire country. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in different parts of the country were stuck without jobs or money. We witnessed their ordeal. We have all seen the heartbreaking images of people walking long distances by foot to try to reach their native villages. People died on the road and the railway tracks, hungry and tired. In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee had announced that not a single person would go hungry in her state. She instructed her workers in even the remotest corners of the state to reach out to the poor and deliver ration and other essentials. She had written to all the governments for their cooperation in ensuring welfare of the migrants from the state. The disease was causing our hospitals to get overcrowded and the state government opened newer facilities to accommodate the increasing numbers of sick people. In the midst of this, the Centre decided to send back packed trains with the labourers, students and others who were stuck. The state government bore the cost of the train fares. Obviously we want to welcome back the people of our state but the Centre decided to send them back only after the spread of the disease had already started instead of in the initial stages when infection had not been so widespread. It is noteworthy also that Mamata Banerjee was the first leader who had urged the Centre to stop international flights to the country. This advice was not heeded and was implemented much later by the Centre.
….allegations of suppressing facts relating to Covid-19 numbers
These insinuations were labelled in the initial phase and were politically motivated. The issue of discrepancies pertained to the state government’s making distinctions between deaths which occurred due to co-morbidity and those which were caused by Covid-19 alone. It was deemed necessary for medical research do determine the difference. However, for the past couple of months, the state government has been following the system of registering even the co-morbidity deaths as Covid-19 deaths and the so-called controversy has died down. West Bengal has emerged as a state with one of the most transparent records in terms of registering the numbers with daily updates posted on the websites of both the state and the central governments.
….unpreparedness during super cyclone Amphan
West Bengal has been dealing with two devastating disasters simultaneously. Even as the Covid-19 pandemic dealt the state a body blow with our healthcare systems overburdened and the lockdown creating an unprecedented economic and social crisis, with hundreds of people rendered jobless, the system received another jolt, with the landing, on May 20, of the super cyclone Amphan on the West Bengal coastline. The region had not seen a cyclone of such a devastating nature since 1737. It ripped through the city of Calcutta, North and South 24 Parganas districts (two of the country’s biggest districts), the district of East Midnapore, and parts of Howrah and Hooghly districts, causing large-scale destruction. Another series of livelihoods were lost with agriculture workers losing entire farmlands, which either got submerged in the sea or inundated with saltwater. Fortunately, the administration had evacuated about 8.5 lakhs people to safety shelters, saving precious life. While the loss of life was minimal, the damage to infrastructure and agricultural produce was extensive. Those who allege that the state government was not prepared are not aware of the ground realities. Even after the cyclone hit and caused extensive damage to infrastructure, causing for instance, large-scale power failure and in turn interrupted water supply in some areas, it was fixed within a reasonably short span of time. No one is claiming that people did not face difficulties, but even in the most advanced countries, cyclones take time to recover from. West Bengal is one of the most densely populated states of the country. Thanks to planning and preparedness we managed to avert a worse disaster.
….corruption in the distribution of relief funds (relating to both the Covid-19 pandemic as well as the super cyclone Amphan).
First of all, in an unprecedented move to provide monetary relief to lakhs of Amphan-affected people, within twelve days of the cyclone striking, the state government deposited money directly into their bank accounts. However, a number of genuine complaints related to the drawing up of faulty lists of beneficiaries prepared by local administrations and leaders of village Panchayats did come to our notice. Both the state administration as well as Trinamool Congress as a Party have taken the strongest possible punitive measures against the commission of such fraud. Hundreds of people have been compelled to return the relief amount they received to the administration. Party members in Panchayats have been expelled and in some cases show-caused. Opposition- controlled Panchayats too have been found to have been involved in nepotism and corruption in funds distribution.
But the cases of corruption are the exceptions. The state government remains committed to reaching the relief funds to everyone affected. In this context, it must be pointed out that the central government has released only one per cent of the total monetary support required. Mamata Banerjee had convened a meeting of all the political parties but the state’s BJP unit has not signed the unanimous appeal to the Centre for funds and resources. It is also noteworthy that the Centre has excluded West Bengal from the list of recipients of the public distribution scheme for the poor, the Garib Kalyan Yogana on grounds which are unclear to us.
….Assembly elections of 2021
Clearly political rivals have their eyes on the state elections of next year which is why they have launched a vicious campaign to try to undermine the efforts of Mamata Banerjee. This is uncalled for in a pandemic. This is not the time for electioneering. Her rivals would have gained more voter-confidence if they had stood by the chief minister as she attempts to contain the spread of the deadly disease. They should have supported her in her endeavour to try to deal with the unprecedented economic and social upheaval it has caused. Initially, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised Didi for the pro-active role she was taking in handling the crisis, we felt it would set a trend of camaraderie in the country in fighting the common enemy but it soon degenerated into the usual mud-slinging. If Mamata’s humane handling of the crisis is correctly portrayed, she surely deserves to be in the international spotlight for her remarkable role in fighting Covid-19 in one of the most densely-populated states of the country.
On the question of the BJP’s chances, it may not receive the traction it expects. In the 2019 Parliamentary elections, BJP had gained the votes of the CPIM after the Left parties decided not to jointly fight the elections with Congress. But BJP has not fared well in state elections in West Bengal in the past. It was trounced badly in the three bye-elections held after the Lok Sabha election of 2019. The anti-NRC/CAA sentiment is too strong in Bengal and BJP’s economic policies have been extremely unpopular in the state. Moreover, the foundations of pluralism and secularism are too deep in Bengal to be shaken by BJP’s communal and divisive politics. In the last Assembly elections in 2016, BJP got elected in three seats out of 294. To expect that they would now cross 147 seats is naive.
Professor Om Prakash Mishra is Head of the Department of International Relations at Jadavpur University, Kolkata and Core Committee member of Trinamool Congress party.
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