The Mamata Banerjee government on Thursday announced lifting of night curfew for the days of the Durga puja festivities in October, while extending other pandemic related restrictions till October 30.
The government announced that there will be no night curfew between October 10 and 20. At present, night curfew apply from 11 pm to 5 am.
The government, however, has not agreed to allow local trains operate till October 30, which means Kolkata is unlikely to see the usual puja crowd just like last year, as people from the suburbs – who rely on local trains – would not be able to visit Kolkata during the Puja.
During the five days of Durga puja - festivities have extended to over a week in the recent years - Bengal, especially Kolkata, turns into a city of installation art, as organisers compete to outsmart each other with innovative pandals and idol designs.
"People can enjoy the Puja in their own localities. A night curfew would have meant people crowding near the pandals from the evening to 10/10.30 pm. Now, the crowd would be thinner as it would spread out," a top bureaucrat in the government said, unwilling to be named.
This decision came a few days after chief minister Mamata Banerjee slammed Tripura’s Biplab Deb-led BJP government for keeping parts of the state under a curfew in October, when the Durga puja, the biggest annual festival of the Bengali Hindus, will be held between 11th and 15th.
This decision to lift night curfew is not merely to address West Bengal’s pandal-hoppers but also directed at the Bengalis of Tripura, political observers felt.
During her campaign in the Bhawanipur bye-election, Banerjee had repeatedly raised the issue of the BJP government in Tripura imposing section 144 of the CrPC in West Tripura district. After her Trinamool Congress (TMC) moved the high court in Tripura against the BJP government’s prohibitory orders preventing them from political activities, the Biplab Deb government told the court that the prohibitions were put in place to prevent a surge of the pandemic, especially in the wake of the impending third wave. The court declined to interfere with government policies.
The TMC believed the prohibitory orders were meant to prevent them from taking up protest events and other political programmes in the northeastern state that Bengal’s ruling party is eyeing for the 2023 assembly elections. Subsequently, the Bengal chief minister tried to sting the BJP government with sentimental issues.
During one of her campaign speeches in September, Banerjee had said, “In Tripura, you (BJP) imposed Section 144 till Diwali (November 4). So, you imposed Section 144 on Ma Durga! Section 144 on Lakshmi Puja, on Deepavali, on Navratri, on Kali Puja! We will never do this.”
At another speech, she cited how Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union home minister Amit Shah and other senior leaders of the BJP, ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election and the 2021 assembly elections, accused her government of not allowing Durga puja in Bengal.
“They falsely said I don’t allow Durga Puja, Lakshmi Puja, Saraswati Puja and what not…. Innumerable Pujas take place across Bengal, every year. Durga Puja is a global spectacle, one of the wonders of the world. We don’t impose restrictions like the BJP-ruled states,” she had said and cited how her government assists puja organisers with financial grants.
There are 36,000 community puja organisers across the state, including 2,500 in Kolkata, which are to receive Rs 50,000 each as one-time grant and enjoy 50% discount on power usage charges as well.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a veteran TMC minister said, “Durga puja is not merely of sentimental value, it’s also the time when business reaches its peak, as people always keep money aside for spending during and ahead of the Puja. A lot of people earn their biggest annual income share during this time. Not allowing public participation during the Puja also hurts economically and I am sure the chief minister will raise that issue, too!”
However, whether Puja visitors would be able to enter the pandals remains to be seen as this would be decided by a Calcutta high court bench hearing a case. Last year, the court had ordered that all Puja pandals will have to be notified as ‘no entry zone’ and visitors could only look at them from outside. This was ordered to ensure safety protocols for the pandemic were not breached.
Health experts sounded apprehensive at the government's attitude 'reflecting a tendency of relaxation.' Arjun Dasgupta, president of West Bengal Doctors' Forum, said that the night curfew had little effect because it was mostly on paper, just like the plying of local trains.
"The plying of local trains is prohibited only on paper. The number of staff special trains have increased and the railways are selling tickets to the public to board then. These staff special trains are getting heavily crowded. The government needs to increase the number of local trains to reduce crowding. Otherwise, during the puja, crowding in these trains will be all the more," Dasgupta said.
He added that the government needed to strictly ensure that everyone on the streets wore masks and that no crowding took place around the pandals. The pandals, too, needed to be open in shape than closed places.