The Centre on Wednesday rapped the West Bengal government over its COVID-19 management which it said is characterised by a very low rate of testing and high mortality, coupled with lockdown violations like overcrowding in markets, people playing cricket and bathing in rivers.
In a stern two-page letter to West Bengal Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha, Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla said stricter enforcement of lockdown norms was necessary to contain the spread of coronavirus in the state.
Bhalla wrote the letter following reports of two Inter-Ministerial Central Teams, which were in Kolkata and Jalpaiguri districts since April 20, and returned on Monday.
He also highlighted the alleged ostracism of healthcare professionals and lack of quarantine facilities in the state.
"The response to COVID-19 in the state of West Bengal is characterised by a very low rate of testing in proportion to the population, and a very high late of mortality of 13.2 per cent for the state, by far the highest for any state," Bhalla said in his letter.
He said this was a reflection of poor surveillance, detection and testing in the state and there is a need to increase random testing in crowded clusters.
He said lockdown violations have been noted Kolkata and Howrah by specific groups in specific localities, with media reports of the 'corona warriors' including even police personnel being attacked in such localities.
He said instances of overcrowding in 'bazaars' (markets) with poor sanitation, free movement of people in large numbers without masks, bathing of people in rivers, people playing cricket and football, serious laxity in enforcing lockdown measures in containment zones, plying of rickshaws are grave violation of lockdown instructions.
The IMCTs have extensively toured seven districts in the state and have communicated their observations from time to time to the state government, Bhalla said.
The home secretary said a strong surveillance and testing regime coupled with confidence-building measures and effective use of 'Aarogya Setu' app could help curb the spread of the virus.
He said the state government should also ensure that the quality of PPE and N-95 masks conforms to the ICMR standards and are available to medical staff of non-COVID hospitals too.
The state government should also pay attention to the wellbeing of poor and migrant labourers as per the Centre's guidelines and share information on steps taken to mitigate their hardships including number of relief camps for the, the letter said.
Steps should also be taken to adequately compensate tea gardens workers of Darjeeling, Siliguri, as reportedly lesser wages were paid to them during the first phase of the lockdown, Bhalla said.
Poor community awareness especially among labourers is also a cause of concern and using Information, Education and Communication materials needs to be stepped up and strict action taken against the violators, the letter said.
Bhalla said there are gaps in the surveillance and contact-tracing of positive cases.
"The state has not furnished any data regarding the number of households and individuals contacted end surveyed for signs of COVID symptoms," he said.
Further, Bhalla said, testing facilities need to be set up in hill districts of North Bengal, as transporting samples to Siliguri is challenging and causes delays.
"Indefinite delays in testing results have further affected the contact-tracing process and have put patients under high risk," he said.
A public grievance redressal mechanism for COVID-related queries and grievances needs to be established to equip public with right kind of information, he said.
"It is important for the state and district level authorities in West Bengal to ensure that the issues highlighted by IMCTs and those mentioned above are attended to urgently. I would request your full co-operation in ensuring this so that the spread of Covid-19 could be effectively contained," Bhalla said.
Last month, after the central government dispatched the two teams West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee criticised the move. She also accused the Centre of sending faulty testing kits to the state.
Subsequently, leader of one of the teams, Additional Secretary Apurva Chandra, alleged the state was not cooperating with them and sought a detailed presentation on the coronavirus situation in the state.
The union home secretary had also alleged the state government was not cooperating with the central teams in assessing the ground situation.
The central government had also blamed the West Bengal government for not implementing the lockdown properly.
Soon, the union home ministry also directed the state government not to obstruct working of the two central teams visiting the state.
Even though the West Bengal chief secretary assured it will abide by all central orders, the state's ruling Trinamool Congress dubbed the visits of the IMCTs as "adventure tourism" and questioned why teams were not sent to other states with much higher cases and hot spots.
TMC leader Derek O'Brien had also criticised the IMCT terming it "India's Most Callous Team".
"Their real aim is to spread the political virus. They are doing it shamelessly, Blatantly. Take your pick, IMCT = India's Most Callous Team IMCT = I Must Cause Trouble (in Bengal)," O'Brien tweeted.
Before wrapping up its two-week trip on Monday, the IMCT headed by Apurva Chandra also indicted the West Bengal government high mortality rate and "low testing and weak surveillance".