In a big damper on Durga Puja revelery, the Calcutta High Court on Monday declared all pandals across West Bengal no-entry zones to prevent the surge of COVID-19 cases in the state.
West Bengal has reported over 3.2 lakh COVID-19 cases and more than 6,000 deaths from the viral disease so far.
A division bench of the high court comprising Justices Sanjib Banerjee and Arijit Banerjee, while hearing a public interest litigation, said that no visitors will be allowed to enter the marquees.
For small pandals, barricades will have to be put up five metres from the entrance, while for the bigger ones, the distance has to be 10 metres, the court ordered.
There should be 'no-entry' boards on the barricades, it said.
The court also ordered that only 15 to 25 persons belonging to the organising committees will be allowed to enter the pandals. Their names will have to be put up on a display board on a daily basis and cannot be changed, it said.
The high court order comes amid red flags raised by medical experts and epidemiologists about a possible exponential spread of the pandemic in West Bengal after reckless celebration of Durga Puja, the state's biggest festival, as was witnessed in Kerala after Onam.
The court passed the order on a PIL filed by a man named Sabyasachi Chatterjee.
Advocate general Kishore Dutta submitted before the court a plan chalked out jointly by West Bengal and Kolkata police on crowd control.
The bench ordered that the guidelines listed in the plan be strictly followed, but noted with concern that the deployment of police for crowd control will not be commensurate with the crowds that were expected to throng the pandals.
The court also voiced concern over large crowds collecting at various markets and malls in Kolkata and elsewhere in utter disregard for COVID-19 protocols like social distancing and wearing masks.
Markets have been chock a block with buyers across the state over the last few days.
The same bench of the Calcutta High Court had on Friday directed the community Durga Puja organisers in the state to spend 75 per cent of the Rs 50,000 grant given by the West Bengal government on procurement of COVID protection equipment and the rest on strengthening public-police bonding.
It had said the money given by the state to the Durga Puja committees cannot be used for any other purpose, and purchase bills have to be submitted to the authorities for audit.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had announced on September 24 the Rs 50,000 grant for each of the 36,946 community Durga puja committees in the state.
The petitioner said despite the spread of the pandemic, the West Bengal government had granted approval to nearly 3,000 community pujas in Kolkata alone.
"When students, whether in schools and colleges, are being prevented from going to educational institutions for the last six months, it will be rather incongruous to allow the festivities to be held this year.
"Life has not been normal for the human species since March, 2020 and it may have been better if restrictions were put in place as to how the Durga Puja festivities would be celebrated this year," the court observed.
It will also be possible in such a scenario for the virtual coverage of the pandals, as has been appropriately suggested in the guidelines by the state, and for ordinary citizens to make do with virtual darshan this year and wait for the normal fare to return the next year, the bench said.
The DIG and Commissioner of Police will have to submit a compliance report after Lakshmi Puja by November 5, it said.
The court also asked police to launch a campaign to publicise its order.