The High Court of Calcutta on Monday (19 October 2020) declared in a significant order that all the pandals where Durga Puja is being celebrated this year, shall be made no-entry zones for members of the public. A bench of Justices Arijit Banerjee and Sanjib Banerjee heard the matter wherein the main concern of the petitioner was that the social distancing and COVID safety protocols might not be followed and maintained at the Puja pandals in the state if the free access is granted, particularly the more famous pujas in and around the city.
The petitioner argued that the breach in such regard may lead to the rapid increase of COVID cases across the state. As per the petitioner, strict restrictions should be applied by the State Government to conduct the Durga Puja so that the overcrowding can be avoided. The petitioner even claimed that if the pujas were made to be low-key events, with the visitors not being permitted at the public puja pandals, there might be no fear of any overcrowding, and COVID protocol can be maintained with no difficulties. Doctors across the state are expressing serious concern over what will be the situation of COVID-19 after the pujas if such overcrowding and uncontrolled are allowed and if the social distancing is not maintained. Before the Court, State submitted a report of all the special measures that have been taken in this regard. The State referred to a Government memorandum of September 28, 2020, entitled “General Guidelines for Durga Puja, 2020”.
The State said that all the aspects are covered in the guidelines and all the directions have been issued on the entry and exit arrangements at the Puja pandals, floor markings, and wearing of masks to be made mandatory. The State also claimed that many volunteers have been appointed at all pandals for ensuring compliance of norms of physical distancing among visitors and special advisories have been issued regarding the Anjali, Prasad Bitoran, and Sindoor Khela which are traditionally conducted during the Puja. All the cultural programs have been prohibited and inaugurations and immersions are to be conducted in a low-key way. As per the Court’s observation, all the appropriate guidelines have been prepared by the State and individual aspects, such as the activities within the pandals, the prohibition of carnivals, and entertainment programs have been extensively referred to in the guidelines. Further, the Court observed that police personnel and administrative authority across the state will put their best efforts and ensure that the guidelines are followed in all the puja pandals to ensure the social distancing is followed as well as all the Covid protocol. The Court remarked that,
“It is inconceivable that Kolkata Police will have enough personnel to man the more than 3000 pujas held within its jurisdiction or to meaningfully control the massive crowds expected, in addition to managing the traffic, attending to other law and order problems and continuing the usual investigation work. Though it is submitted on behalf of the State that most of the personal security officers allotted for VVIP security may be withdrawn during the pujas for such personnel to be deployed on puja duty at pandals or the like, it is inconceivable that VIP security will be completely absent during the time. If Kolkata Police does not have adequate personnel to manage more than 3000 pujas held within its jurisdiction, the State Police can scarcely be expected to control the crowds at the 31,000 other pujas in the districts across the State.” The Court also said that,
“When students across disciplines, whether in schools or colleges or engaged in higher studies, have been prevented from attending educational institutions for more than six months and several students stand to lose a year, it is rather incongruous that puja festivities would continue as in the previous years.”
As per the Court’s view, if the pandals are to be made no entry zones and a certain distance from all sides of the pandals are covered as a part of the no-entry zone, the public at large should be aware that there wouldn’t be any access within the pandals or even close to the same and the affinity to take to the streets may be less. Court’s directions,
The Court further said that,
- In the public interest, all pandals whereat Durga Puja is being celebrated this year are made no-entry zones for members of the public. Further, for the smaller pandals, a five-meter zone beyond the extremities of the pandals on all sides and, for the larger pandals, a 10-meter zone beyond the extremities of the pandal on all sides will be a part of the no-entry zone.
- The only exception would be for the named personnel, including the priest, who will be identified by the puja organizers in advance and whose names would be displayed for checks to be made at any point in time. At the smaller pandals, 15 persons will be named in the list who may have access to the no-entry zone at all times. The number will be 25 to 30 in respect of the bigger to the biggest pandals.
- These directions will apply to all public puja pandals all over the State, including the 34,000 pujas which have obtained grants from the State.
- It will be open to the local police administration to identify which of the pandals will be regarded as small pandals for the restricted zone to be a distance of 5m beyond the furthest extremities of the pandals on all sides.
- Similarly, the local police authorities will identify which of the bigger puja pandals will require a 10m distance from the extremities of the pandals on all sides for the same to operate as a no-entry zone.
- It is necessary, particularly in small towns across the State, for an awareness campaign to be conducted even by the local media at such places to request people to maintain the distancing norm in the present Covid times and not to descend on the streets in hoards as in regular years to celebrate the Durga Puja festival.
“The court hopes that the message is spread by the police and the executive authority all over the State to make people aware that it is in their interest that a degree of self-restraint must be exercised all around. The State and the police authorities will take immediate appropriate steps to give complete effect to this order.” Lastly, the Court said,
“The local police regulating the conduct of traffic and law and order in and around the pandals should ensure strict compliance with the directions contained therein. The Commissioner of Kolkata Police and the Director-General of Police, West Bengal will file affidavits, indicating compliance with the directions contained therein. Such affidavits should be e-mailed to the Registrar-General by November 5, 2020.”
The State sought a stay of operation on this order. The Court said that it is a matter of concern that the State finds the direction onerous. The prayer was declined. [READ ORDER]