Durga puja pandals will be no-entry zones for visitors, the Calcutta High Court said today – just three days ahead of Bengal's biggest festival. Only organisers will be allowed inside the pandals, the court said, limiting the number to 25 for big pandals and 15 for the smaller ones in view of the coronavirus outbreak.
The court said all pandals will have to erect barricades at their entrance -- the distance is five meters for small pandals and double that for the big ones.
Underscoring the need for compliance in view of public health, the High Court said there are not enough policemen in Kolkata to man crowds at the city's 3000-plus pandals.
Last month, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had announced plans to "put coronavirus in lockdown and hold the puja this year".
Without naming the opposition, she said: "We will surely organise the Durga puja this year. We have to avoid crowds at any cost because vultures are sitting out there to blame us if we don't allow the puja or if any spike occurs after the puja. They have no responsibility".
The coronavirus figures have been on the rise across the city as people, over the past weeks, started shopping for the pujas. Throwing caution to the winds, they gathered at the city's shopping areas big and small. Social distancing rules went out of the window as they queued and jostled to get inside the shops. Masks were rarely worn.
The wave of people on the streets triggered concern among health experts, who fear mass infection and a second wave of coronavirus in the state.
On Sunday, the COVID-19 deaths in Bengal went past the 6,000-mark, with 64 more fatalities. The state also logged a record number of 3,983 fresh cases, which brought the total up to 3,21,036, showed data from the state health department.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is in a meeting with the administration to decide on the next step.
Saugata Roy, the MP of the ruling TRinamool Congress said, "It is a setback for Puja organisers... we will wait for the government to speak."
Kolkata's big puja organisers are shocked.
Mr Saswat Bose, head of Durgotsav Forum, the umbrella organisation of 400 of Kolkata's biggest pujas said: "This is a huge setback for us. For four months, we have been working at making things safe for visitors. We had made masks mandatory, sanitising gates were in place, we bought machines for thermal screening. Our exit gates were bigger than entry gates. But now... the rule about barricade 10 metres before the pandal, how will the crowds disperse from the barricade? There will be more chaos!"
"My first reaction is huge disappointment" he added.
Asked about the financial losses, he said, "The puja we do is not a matter of loss or gain. We do puja from a passion. We are shocked. Let's see what happens".