Uncertainty looms large over scheduled polls in Bengal civic bodies as Covid cases rise

By PTI

KOLKATA: Amid the scare of a possible third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, uncertainty looms large over upcoming polls in the four municipal corporations in West Bengal, as both political parties and the State Election Commission (SEC) are undecided whether they should be held on the scheduled date of January 22 or postponed.

The state government on Sunday brought back stricter Covid-related restrictions amid a steep rise in cases, shutting all educational institutions from January 3 and allowing offices to operate with 50 per cent workforce.

The SEC had announced last week that polls to four municipal corporations – Siliguri, Chandannagar, Bidhannagar and Asansol – will be held on January 22.

When contacted, State Election Commissioner Sourav Das said he is not in a position to comment on whether to go ahead with the scheduled date or put off the polling for the time being.

“I can’t comment on it as of now. I will have to discuss the matter with the state government and then take a call,” Das said.

Both the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the opposition parties declined to directly speak on whether they wanted the polls on the scheduled date or not and passed the ball to the court of the SEC to decide on the issue.

“The situation is worrisome, but it is for the SEC to decide whether to hold the polls or not. We will abide by whatever decision the SEC takes,” senior TMC leader Sougata Roy said.

The opposition BJP accused the TMC government of “sponsoring” the third wave of the pandemic in the state.

“If the third wave hits the state, it will be a state government sponsored third wave. We have seen how people were allowed to gather in the state during festivals. Regarding our view on holding the polls, let us see what the SEC and the state government decide, then we will comment,” state BJP spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya said.

Echoing him, CPI(M) central committee member Sujan Chakraborty said the party would comment after the SEC takes a call on it.

“The government has time to organise fairs and sporting events. If we oppose it, the government doesn’t listen to us. So let the government and the SEC first decide what they want, then only we can comment,” he said.

West Bengal is witnessing a spurt in Covid-19 cases for the last few days.

On Saturday, it reported 4,512 fresh infections, 1,061 more than the previous day’s figure, with Kolkata accounting for 2,398 fresh cases.

Last week, BJP state president Sukanta Majumdar urged the SEC to reconsider the dates for the upcoming polls to four municipal corporations on January 22, given the rising number of COVID cases in the state.

His comments had then drawn a sharp retort from the ruling TMC, which wondered whether the BJP led central government and the Election Commission would also postpone the upcoming assembly elections in the five states.

The West Bengal government on Sunday said that it would restrict flights from New Delhi and Mumbai, the two cities witnessing the largest surge in Covid-19 infections in recent weeks, to just twice a week in a measure to combat the spread of the pandemic in the state.

Travel agents believe this will cause a spike in air fares besides placing many fliers’ travel plans in jeopardy.

West Bengal chief secretary HK Dwivedi said that starting January 5 flights from these two metros will be allowed only on Mondays and Fridays till a decision is taken after reviewing the pandemic situation.

The top state bureaucrat also said that from Monday the government has decided to temporarily suspend direct flights from the UK where Omicron variant of the coronavirus is creating new records infecting thousands, as a part of its restriction programmes.

“Flights from New Delhi and Mumbai will ply only twice a week.

As a part of the restrictions, flights from these two places will be allowed to come to Bengal only on Mondays and Fridays,” Dwivedi said while holding a virtual press conference on Sunday.

Dwivedi said that rapid antigen tests have been made “mandatory” for passengers coming from non-at risk countries.

“We have temporarily suspended flights from the UK. And for passengers coming from other non-risk countries, we have made rapid antigen tests mandatory. If found positive then the concerned person will have to undergo RTPCR tests. This will come into force from tomorrow,” he said.

The Bengal government had on Thursday sent a letter to the union aviation ministry regarding its decision on temporarily suspending direct flights from the UK.

Calcutta has only one, once a week flight connection with the UK which is operated by Air India.

Travel agents said the sudden decision would mean a spike in ticket prices.

Krishna Ghosh, director of a Delhi-based travel firm GlobeAir, said “prices on the Delhi-Calcutta route average about Rs 6,000 one way now, this is sure to escalate to over Rs 10,000 one way.”

Eastern India Chairman of Travel Agents of India (TAFI) Anil Punjabi said the government should bring in testing of all domestic sector passengers on arrival.

Airport officials, who did not wish to be named, said the government’s decision would only add to the woes of the passengers planning to fly to the state from these two metropolises.

“It will be a problem for all those passengers who already have their tickets to come to Bengal from New Delhi and Mumbai. Either they have to take another route to come here or reschedule their itinerary,” the official told PTI.

Travel agents said many of those coming to Kolkata from abroad anyway routed their flight schedules through other cities and added “domestic fliers too would follow suit.”

The Chief Secretary however, said that there is no ban on passengers from the UK to enter the state through other corridors using other means of travelling.

“They can take other routes (domestic flights or trains) to come to Bengal,” he said.

At a press conference on Sunday afternoon, Chief Secretary HK Dwivedi announced that only essential services will be permitted to operate between 10 pm and 5 am in the state till January 15 and flights from the Mumbai and New Delhi, which have both reported a large numbers of infections will ply only twice a week in view of the rising number of Covid cases.

West Bengal, which witnessed a sudden spurt in Covid-19 cases with a near 12-fold rise in the last seven days, on Sunday reported 6,153 new infections, 1,641 more than the previous day, with Kolkata accounting for 3,194 new cases, a health bulletin released by the state government said.

Dwivedi said starting January 5, flights from the two metropolises will be allowed only on Mondays and Fridays till a decision is taken reviewing the pandemic situation.

The state government had earlier announced that flights from the UK will not be allowed for the time being.

“As part of the restrictions, flights from these two cities will operate only twice a week — Mondays and Fridays,” he said.

Last week, in a letter to the Civil aviation ministry, the state government had said it is suspending all direct flights from the UK and those emanating from other high-risk countries from January 3.

The state government had also announced a mandatory COVID test for all international travelers from non-at risk countries.

“We have temporarily suspended flights from the UK. We have made rapid antigen tests mandatory for passengers coming in from non-risk countries. If found positive, the person concerned will have to undergo an RT-PCR test,” Dwivedi said.

However, he clarified that passengers coming from the UK can land in a different city and take a domestic flight or a train to West Bengal.

He added that the respective boards will decide on school board examination dates.

“From tomorrow, all academic activities in schools, colleges and universities will remain closed. Only administrative activities will be permitted with 50 per cent employees at a time,” he said.

Local trains will be allowed to operate with 50 per cent capacity till 7 pm, while all shopping malls and markets will be allowed to remain open till 10 pm but with half their capacities, he said.

Long-distance trains will operate as per their usual schedule.

“All government and private offices will function with 50 per cent workforce. Work from home will be encouraged as far as possible,” the official said.

All tourist attractions, including the zoos, will remain closed.

Besides, swimming pools, parlours, spas, wellness centers and gyms were ordered to shut down, he said.

Cinema halls and theatres have been allowed to operate with 50 per cent capacity.

Meetings and conferences have been allowed with a maximum of 200 people at a time or 50 per cent capacity of the hall, whichever is lower.

Bars and restaurants were allowed to remain open with 50 per cent capacity till 10 pm, while home delivery of food and other essential products was permitted as per usual operational hours.

The chief secretary said that no more than 50 persons will be allowed in a wedding, and only 20 persons will be allowed during funeral and burial services.

Meanwhile uncertainty loomed large over upcoming polls in the four municipal corporations in West Bengal, as both political parties and the State Election Commission (SEC) are undecided whether they should be held on the scheduled date of January 22 or postponed.

The chief secretary said that a decision on the ensuing civic polls, scheduled on January 22, in four cities of the state would be taken by the State Election Commission (SEC).

“It’s the responsibility of the SEC, and it will not be proper for us to comment on this matter. Let the SEC decide on how to conduct the elections following the COVID-19 protocols,” he said.

Reacting to the development, State Election Commissioner Sourav Das said he is not in a position to comment on whether to go ahead with the scheduled date or put off the polling for the time being.

“I can’t comment on it as of now. I will have to discuss the matter with the state government and then take a call,” Das said.

The chief secretary also announced that ‘Duare Sarkar’ (government at doorstep) camps, scheduled to start from January 2, have been postponed for a month and will begin on February 1, the official said.

He said that an area with more than five Covid patients will be earmarked as a micro-containment zone.

“There are 11 such micro-containment zones in Kolkata at present,” he said.

The chief secretary said that hospitals have been asked to operationalise at least half the institutional quarantine facilities that existed during the second wave of the pandemic.

He said that all government and private hospitals have been advised to review the arrangements for treating COVID patients, and all asymptomatic COVID patients are asked to stay in home isolation.

Dwivedi said that the government has decided to open safe homes at Gitanjali Stadium, Haj House and Pratidin Bhavan.

Stating that there is only 1.5 per cent hospital bed occupancy in West Bengal, Dwivedi urged the people not to panic and follow the guidelines.

“Any violation of the restrictions will be liable to be proceeded against as per the provisions of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 and the Indian Penal Code,” he said.

The state presently has 16 cases of the omicron variant.

The daily coronavirus infections in West Bengal have shot up over 11 times in a week in West Bengal, while in the case of Kolkata, the increase is more than 14 times during the period, according to the state government data.

The state on Sunday recorded 6,153 infections with Kolkata accounting for 3,194 of them, a health department bulletin said.

On December 26, the respective figures were 544 and 219.

West Bengal had recorded 4,512 Covid-19 cases on Saturday, with the metropolis alone reporting 2,398 of them.

The bulletin said that eight people died of coronavirus on Sunday, while nine such patients had perished the previous day.

A total of 19,781 people have died of the disease so far, according to the bulletin.

Of the eight fresh fatalities in the state, two persons died in Kolkata, three in North 24 Parganas, two in Hooghly and one in Howrah districts, the bulletin said.

The positivity rate went up to 15.93 per cent from 12.02 per cent the previous day, while the number of daily tests went up from Saturday’s 37,542 to 38,633 on Sunday, it said.

North 24 Parganas followed Kolkata to be in the second position in the number of infections at 994 cases on Sunday, up from 688 on the previous day, the bulletin said.

Apart from Kolkata and North 24 Parganas, the other districts which recorded high incidence of cases are Howrah (595), South 24 Parganas (280), Paschim Bardhaman (257), Hooghly (218), Birbhum (140) and Nadia (102), according to the data.

As 2,407 Covid patients were discharged on Sunday, the recovery rate stood at 97.77 per cent, it said.

A total of 16,12,331 people have been cured of the infection so far, it said, adding that the number of total Covid cases recorded in the state is 16,49,150.

Altogether 2,14,68,047 samples have been tested for Covid-19 in West Bengal so far, the bulletin said.