Calcutta High Court refuses to lift ban on entry of visitors inside Puja Pandals

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The Calcutta High Court on Wednesday refused to lift the ban on the entry of visitors inside puja pandals, a day before the start of Durga Puja – the biggest festival in West Bengal. The court, however, provided some relief to puja organisers by raising the cap on the number of committee members and local residents into a pandal; and allowing the entry of dhakis (drummers) as part of the celebrations.

“No further modification is thought appropriate so that the effect of the effect of the order is not diluted or the purpose thereof defeated,” stated the order passed by the division bench of the Calcutta high court on Wednesday.

In its order on Monday, the high court banned the entry of visitors inside the Durga Puja pandals to contain the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), and mandated putting up barricades outside these enclosures. It also capped on the number of puja committee members who can enter the pandal – 25 for big pujas, and 15 for smaller ones.

“The virus refuses to go away. Though the healthcare facilities in the state have been augmented, with the limited resources available, the state can only do so much. In such a situation, it may be judicious to err on the side of prevention that to allow the festivities to go on without any checks and repent later that adequate resources may not be available to provide for the massive cure that may become necessary,” stated the order passed on October 19.

Five applications were filed by various puja organisers in and around Kolkata and the Forum for Durgotasab seeking a modification of the court’s order. These review petitions were heard on Wednesday.

Making changes in its earlier order, the court said that in big pandals, where the area is more than 300 square metres, not more than 45 persons may enter at a time; and in smaller pandals, not more than 15 persons should be present at the same time. The bigger pandals will need to give the names of 60 people who want to enter the enclosure every day by 8 that morning, while the smaller pandals will have to give a list of 20 names.

“Even though we had urged the court to raise the cap on the number of puja committee members entering the pandal every day to 100, we are happy with Wednesday’s modifications. This would allow puja committee members and local residents to enter the pandal in rotation every day. But it is unfortunate that local residents won’t be able to gather inside pandals to perform the Anjali and Sindur Khela. The entry of visitors remains banned,” said Saswata Basu, general secretaryof Forum for Durgotsab, an umbrella organisation of over 350 prominent puja committees in Kolkata, which the review petition.

Lawyers said that Sindur Khela can be organised beyond the 10-metre barricaded zone for big pujas and 5-metre no-entry zone for small pujas. Similarly, Anjali can also be performed in the same way from a distance.

This year, than 37,000 community pujas are being organised across the state, including more than 2,500 in Kolkata. The list does not include pujas which are held inside housing societies and houses.

The festive season begins at a time when Bengal has been witnessing a spike a Covid-19 cases. Bengal reported 4029 new cases on Tuesday, of which 809 new infections were reported in Kokata alone. The positivity rate for West Bengalhas jumped from 6.9% to 9.2% in the last one month.

“Visitors’ entry inside pandals remains banned. This is an exceptional year because of the pandemic situation. We can celebrate next year. This year we need to stay away from crowd. The High Court has given some orders. Now it is up to the state government, police and club authorities to implement it,” said Sabyasachi Chatterjee, the lawyer who filed the original PIL for petitioner Ajay Kumar De.

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