Deep rot in West Bengal during COVID-19 lockdown: Mamata Banerjee has reason to be touchy over Centre's fact-finding attempts

If Mamata's defence is that her state’s numbers are too low to demand attention, it is precisely for that reason that the data coming out of Bengal should be put under severe scrutiny. Worldwide, the pandemic has established a link between number of positive cases and testing.

Sreemoy Talukdar April 22, 2020 19:43:42 IST
Deep rot in West Bengal during COVID-19 lockdown: Mamata Banerjee has reason to be touchy over Centre's fact-finding attempts

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark — Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet. The Bard might as well have been talking about West Bengal. There is something foul in Mamata Banerjee's state and all the perfumes of Arabia, narrative building or data fudging, cannot hide the stench.

It could explain why the West Bengal chief minister is being so obtuse and nervous about a central fact-finding team visiting the state.

Acting on complaints, the Union ministry of home affairs has dispatched Inter-Ministerial Central Teams (IMCT) to assess the level of preparedness in the battle against the pandemic in different red and orange zones across India. These teams are mandated to evaluate implementation of lockdown measures and any complications arising from laxity, condition of health infrastructure, safety of health workers, violation of social distancing norms in "hotspots and emerging hotspots" that may pose a "serious health hazard". They will make on-the-spot assessment, prepare reports and give suggestions.

As it happens, seven districts in Bengal are under the radar — Kolkata, Howrah, East Medinipur, North 24-Parganas, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Jalpaiguri. The MHA, in an order dated 19 April, has stated that "after analysing prevalence of violations in major hotspot districts, it is clear to the central government that the situation is “especially serious in these districts."

Is Bengal the only state where such teams are being sent by the Centre? No.

While the two five-member teams will visit West Bengal, two will visit Maharashtra and one each will head for Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. While Madhya Pradesh has a BJP government, three of these states are ruled by the Opposition. Only Mamata, however, is creating a furore.

Mamata initially refused to cooperate with the central team and denied them access and logistical support.

She abided when Amit Shah’s ministry issued a warning and a letter asking Mamata not to obstruct the central teams from doing its duty.

At a news conference in New Delhi, a home ministry spokesperson said if West Bengal fails to extend cooperation, they may face action. Latest reports indicated that after putting the teams on hold initally, the Mamata government has finally allowed ICMT members to do their job.

Prima facie, this controversy makes little sense. If the Centre has assessed that certain districts need to be closely monitored, why would the states create hurdles in that effort, given the unique threat posed by a pandemic that demands a collaborative effort? After all, the virus did not originate in Bengal.

Deep rot in West Bengal during COVID19 lockdown Mamata Banerjee has reason to be touchy over Centres factfinding attempts

File image of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Getty Images

The answer to this question takes us to the heart of the rot that lies within Bengal where administrative apathy, political opportunism, bureaucratic inertia, censoring of information and data fudging has created a situation where nobody is sure how deep and far the COVID-19 pandemic has spread.

Faced with a loss of credibility in its data, the Mamata Banerjee government is busy spinning a furious yarn to control the narrative. It has taken a leaf out of the Chinese playbook in bullying into silence all dissenting voices and releasing only ‘sanitized’ information. Some of it so brazen that it defies belief.

During a recent news conference where Mamata was questioned on the silence of Tablighi Jamaat attendees from Bengal who went for Nizamudddin Markaz event in New Delhi — a known hotspot — Mamata rebuked the journalists, telling them not to ask "communal questions".

That she has largely escaped censure despite such autocratic behavior tells us the way ‘liberal’ media treats ‘secular’ leaders. But that’s another story. Let us first look at Mamata’s allegations against the Centre before we assess how deep the public health crisis is in Bengal.

The chief minister has accused the Centre of political witch-hunt and asked why the Centre has not sent teams to states such as Gujarat or Uttar Pradesh that are ruled by the BJP. This is a non-sequitur. One of the central teams is going to Madhya Pradesh.

Second, Mamata has questioned the validity of Centre’s move, calling it an assault on ‘federalism’. In her letter to the prime minister and Union home minister, she called it an “unilateral action”. Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien has said the Central team is doing “adventure tourism”.

In response, the Centre has pointed out these teams "have been deputed under the authority conferred on the central government under Section 35 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, which in turn authorises the Centre to take all such measures…" It has also reminded the state of the Supreme Court order passed on 31 March, 2020, where states have been asked to "comply with the directives and orders issued by the Union of India in letter and spirit in the interest of public safety."

Mamata has also accused the Centre of “breaching protocol” since the ICMT delegation arrived just minutes after a formal communication. This is a valid charge, but in dealing with a state government that has a history of covering up incidents and dressing-up data, there is a good reason why Central teams on a fact-finding mission didn’t want to give the administration too much time for ‘preparation’.

Mamata’s final allegation is that Centre's discriminatory behaviour has been "exposed" by the fact that it targeted Bengal, a state with among the lowest coronavirus cases in India, whereas states with more cases and hotpots have been ignored. This is a poor attempt at spinning the narrative.

The Centre should be lauded for sending an investigative team to Bengal where swirling allegations point to large-scale data suppression, surreptitious cremation of bodies, lack of testing, collapse in public health infrastructure and charges of corruption in distribution of ration through PDS.

If Mamata’s defence is that her state’s numbers are too low to demand attention, it is precisely for that reason that the data coming out of Bengal should be put under severe scrutiny. Worldwide, the pandemic has established a link between number of positive cases and testing. It is an established fact that Bengal’s testing is among the lowest in India, and it may explain why one of India’s most populous states has such a low number of positive cases. Well may Mamata claim that this is a result of her stellar administrative skills, facts indicate otherwise.

A study by India Today found that Bengal's testing rate as 'abysmally low', and calls it a 'cause for concern' given Bengal’s large population. A similar data crunching by The Wire found that Bengal has “actually performed the least number of tests amongst all the large states in India.”

A Reuters report published on 14 April pointed out that West Bengal has done “just 33.7 tests per million, compared to a national average of around 156.9 per million, and 442 per million in Rajasthan."

Why is Bengal performing so few tests? Mamata has claimed that the state has very few testing kits available, but once again facts belie her claims.

The chief of National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (NICED) — nodal arm of ICMR in Kolkata — has gone on record to say that Bengal government is not sending enough samples for testing. Dr Shanta Dutta, Director, NICED, told media that flow of samples has not been “equal from the very beginning”. In an article published on 13 April, Dr Dutta was quoted, as saying to India Today.

"There is a big drop last week we didn’t even have 20 samples per day. Number of samples being sent is determined by the state government, so if they send more samples, we are able to test more. I think sample collection has not been as per the recommendation."

She refuted allegations on lack of testing kits, pointing out that ICMR has dispatched 42,500 kits to NICED so far. So, why are samples not being sent for testing in Bengal? Has the coronavirus decided to spare the Bengal residents? The truth is disturbing.

Bengal has become the only state to install a bureaucratic layer between the doctor and a patient. Even if a doctor decides that a patient needs to be tested immediately, a body constituted by the state government will ‘verify’ whether there is a need for testing. And it may refuse permission.

This administrative step has created a fissure between the state and health service providers. Doctors are angry not only at being superseded but also because this red tape is causing a delay in isolation and treatment, allowing the deadly contagion to spread faster.

Dr Arjun Dasgupta, who represents West Bengal Doctors Forum, a body that has 19,000 doctors as members, was quoted by Reuters as saying: ““If you suspect COVID and send the samples, either they are refused, or the report comes back after three to four days.”

Needless to say that this is not only crippling public health, it is also leading to likely under-reporting of positive cases. Not only is the state doing meagre testing — leave alone asymptomatic cases — it is failing to test even those who doctors think are infected with COVID-19. This may explain why Bengal’s count is so low.

This devious plan to keep the numbers down makes it impossible to understand the true extent of the outbreak in Bengal. And that’s not all. Mamata has introduced yet another bureaucratic layer that takes away power from the doctors to write the cause of death in death certificates. A state-appointed committee will decide whether a patient has died of coronavirus, or not.

What explains the rationale behind this move?

Dr Pratim Sengupta, a noted Nephrologist in Kolkata associated with Belle Vue clinic, in a Facebook post alleged that even when coronavirus patients were dying with symptoms of respiratory failure, the “expert advisory committee” was not citing COVID-19 as cause of death. (Also see Reuters report).

Attaching pictures with his post of a deceased patient, the doctor has written (sic): “Friends below is the X-ray and CT scan of PT died at a hospital of North Calcutta who was COVID19 positive; but declared as death due to renal failure !! I am practising nephrology for last one decade, It’s new learning for me!!”

These are not one-off charges. The state’s death figures have been called into question by a number of people from medical fraternity. Many doctors are scared of identifying themselves in fear of retribution from state machinery but there are some like Dr Sengupta who have raised a stink. Corroborating the nephrologist’s charges, Dr Archana Majumdar has been quoted as saying in a Sunday Guardian report that the state is hiding the real figures of death. “Let me cite one example. It happened this week at one of the hospitals. A patient, named Sudipta Mukherjee, got admitted and eventually died around 1004 hours. She was 43 years old and her body was sent out of the hospital as a Hepatitis B case.”

China has recently revised Wuhan’s death figures, raising it by 50 percent and adding 1,290 fatalities after a US intelligence report indicated that China cited false statistics and kept the figures artificially low to hide the true extent of the outbreak and create an impression that they were on top of the crisis.

The Bengal government has copied from the Chinese playbook, but its implementation has been comical.

CPM leader Md Salim has tweeted purported documents that show discrepancy in death figures. One COVID patient, Nepal Barman from Malda, was “surreptitiously” cremated on 12 April but his sample was apparently collected the day after on 13 April. The CPM leader asked: “How can swab of a person, cremated on 12th, be collected on 13th and report come on 14th? Are you treating patients or your 'Banglar Garvo' signboard?”

The state government is accused not only of dressing up death data to hide real figures and changing the parameters of counting but also playing around with numbers that expose lack of coordination between the different arms of the State machinery. In a report published on 3 April, The Hindu noted how the chief secretary of state refuted fatality numbers within hours of the state’s own Covid task force releasing it.

Not just ‘crunching’ numbers, the state’s laid-back approach in mitigating the crisis has alarmed the doctors to such an extent that they have shot off a 10-point letter to the chief minister, red-flagging issues of non-availability of PPEs for health workers leading to 137 medical staff including doctors, nurses and para-medical staff being infected, treatment of suspect and positive COVID patients in hospitals earmarked for the pandemic instead of keeping them in general ward and absence of real-time data.

Bengal's response in tackling the issues raised by doctors is eerily close to Chinese authoritarian system. Oncologist doctor Indranil Khan was detained and allegedly mentally tortured by police for raising the issue of safety gear for health workers. Facing State-sponsored bullying, Dr Khan eventually approached the high court that “came down heavily on the Mamata Banerjee government” and “barred any coercive action against the doctor."

Mamata’s failure in implementing non-pharmaceutical interventions — that have been touted as the only effective way of breaking the contagion chain — placed Bengal at a disadvantage in the battle against the pandemic. Her negligence and reluctance in enforcing strict lockdown measures (see here, here and here) likely aided the spread, and the dressing up of data is a desperate attempt to stop that reality from shaping the narrative.

It is clear that in obstructing the Centre’s fact-finding team, Mamata wanted to use federalism as an excuse to avoid scrutiny. This is a political ploy that India, much less Bengal, cannot afford. Sunlight, after all, is the best disinfectant. Instead of trying to thwart Centre’s efforts, the chief minister should double down on collaborative attempts and present a united front. The pandemic demands no less.

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