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COVID-19 Lockdown: Centre-State Stand-off in Bengal Strains Further Over Cargo Issue

The direct confrontation with New Delhi on the lockdown has its origin in the Union Home Ministry’s decision to send two inter-ministerial central teams (IMCT) to the state on April 20 without advance intimation to the state government.
New Delhi on the lockdown

Kolkata: There seems to be a ‘not spoken about’ reason, apart from the ‘highly visible’ causes for West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee’s face-off with New Delhi directly and via state Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar. The Governor is frequently issuing statements criticising the state administration over handling of the lockdown. In the process, Dhankhar is also targeting the chief minister because she herself holds charge of the Health & Family Welfare Department.

The ‘not spoken about’ reason has an international aspect and paradoxically, both the Centre and the chief minister cannot be faulted for their respective stance; although for Banerjee it amounts to being pressured to be “somewhat accommodative”. This has to do with road movement of cargo to Bangladesh through the Petrapole border on the Indian side in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, about 80 km from Kolkata.

Movement of cargo to Bangladesh through Petrapole, a strategic transit point (corresponding place on the other side is Benapole), in the normal course came to a halt from the midnight of March 23-24 as New Delhi, as part of its response to COVID-19, ordered a three-week nationwide lockdown, which was subsequently extended to May 3.

In recent days, keeping in view the commencement of the Ramzan fasting schedule on last Friday, the Centre suggested to the chief minister that she, while not relenting on lockdown enforcement, be somewhat accommodative and allow movement of cargo held up at Petrapole. Even restricted movement will show New Delhi making attempts to discharge its obligations under the bilateral trade pact with Dhaka.

More or less same is the situation for land-locked Nepal and Bhutan. India's trade agreements with Nepal and Bhutan establish the criticality of Kolkata in the India-Nepal and India-Bhutan trade.

Also read: COVID-19: Centre Seeks Resumption of Jute Mills in WB, CM Lowers Cap on Workforce Deployment

With the job of taming hotspots and containment having become tougher, the Bengal CM is not interested to act on the Centre’s suggestions. For she fears that if she relents even if marginally, she may be “re-activating a Corona virus import source” and adding to her problems. Enforcement of the lockdown, incidentally, has become a key issue in the strained state-Centre ties and that gives Banerjee a reason to be firm on the Dhaka cargo issue.

Inquiries from import-export trade sources suggest that fortunately for them perishables were cleared by the Land Port Authority of India staff at the checkpost before the lockdown took effect. Right now, around 2,000 cargo-laden trucks are held up, of which about 250 are waiting at Bongaon and the rest 1,700 plus at Petrapole, according to manager of Petrapole checkpost Suvajit Mandal.

Trade sources told NewsClick that the major items of export from India are: cotton fabrics, motor vehicle chassis, non-alloy steel, yarn, iron and steel products, synthetic fibres, two-wheelers, motor cycles and scooters, machinery parts, books and papers, cereals and other food products.

The major items of import from Bangladesh into India are: jute products, betel nuts, fish, cotton rags, readymade garments, knitted fabrics, rice bran, zinc plate, lead and reprocessed plastic agglomerate.

The direct confrontation with New Delhi on the lockdown has its origin in the Union Home Ministry’s decision to send two inter-ministerial central teams (IMCT) to the state on April 20 without advance intimation to the state government. Judging by the developments since then, suffice it to say that the CM has had to climb down after the very strongly worded letter that Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla wrote to West Bengal Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha on April 21. The letter followed a complaint from IMCT that they were not receiving the desired cooperation.

Bhalla simply made it clear that the Centre’s instructions were binding on the state in terms of Section 35 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, read with the Supreme Court’s observation on March 31 that “states will faithfully comply with the directives and orders issued by the Union of India in letter and spirit in the interest of public safety”.

Bhalla’s letter of April 21 left the CM sulking with a retort, “I too can write such letters”. This particular episode lends itself to one interpretation. Home Minister Amit Shah did not deliberately inform Banerjee in advance about IMCT’s visit, anticipating a piquant situation for the teams, even if temporarily.

Governor Dhankhar has been finding fault with the state administration, in general and the CM, in particular, frequently. On the other hand, Banerjee and other TMC leaders often accuse him of allegedly acting at the behest of the state Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, who frequent Raj Bhavan. Recently, the CM accused him of not observing constitutional proprieties and “doing things unbecoming of a constitutional head”.

Also read: West Bengal: TMC Govt Spent Rs 1,300 Crore on Clubs, While Unemployment Continues to Rise

Stretching a point, in a 14-page letter written to the CM on April 24, Dhankhar has observed that she had miserably failed in tackling the pandemic and was religiously indulging in explicit appeasement of the minority community. Also, her party leaders were not allowing the Opposition to play the role expected of them in the given situation, although the Opposition parties had assured her of a constructive approach. Banerjee sees the Governor’s exercise as the BJP and Centre’s joint bid to malign her ministry through the Raj Bhavan incumbent.

Asked about the handling of the crisis by the Centre and the state-Centre face-off, senior leader of Communist Party of India (Marxist), Mohammed Salim, told NewsClick that this has exposed the unpreparedness of the Union government and the state. “Right from the beginning, we have been telling the chief minister that ours will be a constructive approach, but when we registered our protest at the failure of the state government to check the spread of the virus and in ensuring relief and ration distribution irrespective of party affiliation, our leaders were arrested,” Salim said, adding, “Whereas the need is to involve grassroot-level agencies up to the panchayat level, Mamata has, always, converted it to a solo show. It appears the state and the government are not on the same page.”

As for held up Bangladesh bound cargo, Salim said the situation should be handled with great sensitivity and under no circumstances, quarters should be given to the anti-India forces there.

Commenting on the standoff and the provisions of the Constitution, senior CPI(M) leader Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, who was recently elected to Rajya Sabha, said, “This is not the time to play petty political game. Both the Governor and the chief minister are holding constitutional positions; the former is nominated by the Centre and has a well-defined role and the latter is an elected representative with abundant executive powers. But, they are not two centres of power. If the Governor seeks information on any subject and offers his advice, the chief minister should not object and consider it as an interference.”

Bhattacharya contended that although health is a state subject, given the enormity of the problem, New Delhi has to play a much larger role which naturally extends to strict adherence to guidelines of the World Health Organisation and Indian Council of Medical Research. “It’s neither a Centre-state issue nor the problem of any particular state,” he noted.

President of West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee Somen Mitra said the Governor, by virtue of the position he holds, is the first citizen of the state. Not all of what he is saying and complaining is wrong. There is certainly some substance. Opposition party leaders, including law makers, are not able to work. “Do I need to clarify why? There is no transparency in the distribution of relief. Why should it be the monopoly of the ruling party people? We have urged the chief minister to set up all-party committees for demarcated rationing areas for overseeing relief work and execution of the government’s preventive measures. But, she is yet to respond,” Mitra told NewsClick.

State secretary of Communist Party of India Swapan Banerjee lamented that West Bengal is witnessing very low grade politics. “The chief minister is stooping low; all her actions, including her address to the public through loudhailers, are intended to hog the limelight. At this critical juncture, should the chief minister be seen on the road with loudhailers,” he asked.

“Yes, an all-party meeting was called and we made certain suggestions in keeping with the Left 
Front’s decision to be constructive in its approach. But, the exercise has yielded precious little,” he added.

State secretary of Revolutionary Party of India, Manoj Bhattacharyra, said that he does not approve of the Governor’s conduct. What he is doing is derogatory to his position. “We stick to our old suggestion that the post of Governor, which entails huge expenditure, should be abolished. Surveillance by the Centre in a state through the office of the Governor is not welcome,” he told NewsClick.

However, he added, that the CM’s response was not suited for the seriousness of the issue, “It’s a one lady show. There is no reflection of collective effort to tackle the pandemic. It will be a dangerous situation is there is even one instance of community transmission of the virus,” he warned.

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