The face-off between the Centre and West Bengal over the visit of two central teams for an on-the-spot assessment of the COVID-19 situation escalated on Tuesday as the panel members lay confined to guest houses for most part of the day before the state relented following a stern letter from the Union home secretary.
The arrival of the teams in Kolkata without prior intimation to the state government has set off a tussle between the ruling dispensations at the Centre and in the state, with Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress calling the visit adventure tourism and violation of the tenets of federal structure, and the Bharatiya Janata Party accusing her government of hiding data about the pandemic.
The two teams that were to tour the affected areas and interact with health workers kept cooling their heels in guest houses in Kolkata and Jalpaiguri, before the Centre intervened, with Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla shooting off a stern letter to the states chief secretary Rajiva Sinha reminding him of provisions of law and a Supreme Court order.
Apurva Chandra, the leader of one of the two teams sent to the state, claimed its members were told they "will not be going out" on Tuesday.
Chandra, an additional secretary in the defence ministry, said, "We have been deployed by the central government and our order of deployment says that the state government is to provide logistic(al) support to us... I have been in touch with the chief secretary and seeking his support since the time I landed here.
"I had also met him yesterday. But today we have been informed that there are some issues so we are not going out. The chief secretary is likely to visit us and we will again hold a meeting with him," he told a TV news channel in Kolkata.
As tensions flared, the Union home ministry intervened, with its secretary Bhalla writing to the states chief secretary that the two inter-ministerial central teams, visiting Kolkata and Jalpaiguri, have not been extended desired cooperation by the state and local authorities.
"In fact, they have been specifically restrained from making any visits, interacting with health professionals, and assessing the ground level situation.
"This amounts to obstructing the implementation of the orders issued by the central government under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, and equally binding directions of the Hon'ble Supreme Court," Bhalla said.
The union home secretary said, therefore, the state government is directed to make all necessary arrangements for the central teams to carry out such responsibilities as have been entrusted to them.
After the strongly worded letter from Bhalla, the team in Kolkata was allowed to visit parts of the city escorted by Border Security Force and state police contingents.
"The central team told us that it wants to visit parts of the city. We agreed and state government officials are accompanying the team," Rajiva Sinha later told reporters.
When pressed further whether the team would be allowed to visit other districts and how long it plans to stay in Bengal, the top bureaucrat of the state, said, "Nothing has been decided about their visit to other districts. When they come up with it (the proposal), we would take a call. About the duration of their stay, we would like to say it clearly that we have not invited them, they have come on their own. At a time when we are fighting the disease, making arrangements for their visit is tough, he said.
Political temperature, meanwhile, soared as the TMC dubbed as "adventure tourism" the visit of the central teams and asked why such delegations were not sent to states with much higher number of infections and hotspots.
Addressing a digital press conference, TMC MPs Derek O'Brien and Sudip Bandyopadhyay claimed that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was informed about the inter-ministerial central teams' visit three hours after their arrival in the state, which they said was unacceptable.
"The IMCT is on adventure tourism. The CM was told about the team's visit three hours after the team landed," said O'Brien.
He also questioned why central teams did not visit states such as Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh that have higher numbers of coronavirus cases and many more hotspots.
"Why central teams are being sent to West Bengal which does not appear in the list of the top 10 states in terms of infection," the TMC leader in Rajya Sabha asked.
"The Centre has to clarify. Why the chief minister wasn't informed after the team had arrived? In a federal structure, you have to first inform the state government. The motive behind sending such teams is not yet clear. It needs to be clarified first," he said.
The Union home ministry had said on Monday the COVID-19 situation was "especially serious" in Mumbai, Pune, Indore, Jaipur, Kolkata and a few other places in West Bengal, and formed six IMCTs for an on-the-spot assessment and issuing necessary directions to the four states -- Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and West Bengal.
Bandyopadhyay, the leader of the Trinamool Congress in Lok Sabha, hoped that good sense would prevail and the Centre would henceforth consult the respective state before taking such a decision.
"We have kept politics behind and want a joint fight against the pandemic. Do not take our graciousness for granted, we too can talk in the political language. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah should also leave politics behind and should not take Bengal's pledge for a united fight in tackling the pandemic for granted," O'Brien said.
"What the central government has done by sending central teams is nothing but an insult to the people of the state, he added.
Responding to a question on "low rate of testing" in the state, Bandyopadhyay said that 425 tests are conducted every day in West Bengal and the number from Tuesday would go up to 600.
He said sending central teams is not only against the basic tenets of federalism but also amounted to diluting the joint fight against the COVID crisis.
Taking umbrage at the Centre for sending teams to assess the "serious" COVID-19 situation in the state, the West Bengal chief minister had shot off a letter to the prime minister on Monday, calling it a "unilateral" and "undesirable" action.
The BJP, however, defended the Centre's move. "The central government has done the right thing. They (the teams) will surely find out how the lockdown norms are being violated and how the state government is trying to hide the real picture. In order to hide the facts and figures, it is pushing the people towards a much more dangerous situation," the state BJP president Dilip Ghosh said.