Editorials - 24-04-2021

As the BJP makes inroads into West Bengal, the incumbent Trinamool Congress government is pushing back, even as an experiment in Muslim politics is under way. Shiv Sahay Singh and Sudipta Datta report on the many strands of a polarised Bengal campaign

On the sinking island of Ghoramara, at the southernmost tip of West Bengal, which falls under the Sagar Assembly constituency, the impact of cyclone Amphan that hit the State last May is still visible. Homes near the coast lie flattened, the banks have eroded further, and uprooted trees are yet to be cleared. Ashima Giri got Rs. 20,000 as Amphan cyclone relief. “We are for [West Bengal Chief Minister] Mamata Banerjee,” she says without any hesitation. But there are several others like Sareja Bibi who point out that they either did not get anything following the devastation or had to pay the local Trinamool Congress network “cut money” to get the amount. In the coastal areas of South 24 Parganas, North 24 Parganas and Purba Medinipur, corruption in the Trinamool local leadership over Amphan relief is a common refrain.

In Bengal, where two phases of a long eight-phase election are yet to be held, the Trinamool’s entire campaign is built around Banerjee. “Didi, didi aar ke, Bangla nijer meye keyi chaay(Didi, who else? Bengal wants its own daughter)” is the party’s resounding slogan. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has quickly emerged to become the primary opposition to the ruling party, is trying to push the idea of “ashol paribartan(real change)” in its campaign. And the Samyukta Morcha, comprising the Left, Congress, and newly floated Indian Secular Front (ISF), has tried to shake things up by challenging both the main contenders. The contest has been marked by numerous defections, taunts, communal statements, violence, and aggressive campaigning even as the number of COVID-19 cases rises alarmingly in Bengal.

Fear of violence

Across the river, in Purba Medinipur district, all eyes are on the electoral contest at Nandigram where Banerjee is taking on Trinamool-turned-BJP rival Suvendu Adhikari. An injury to the Chief Minister on March 10 has restricted her movement, forcing her on a wheelchair for the rest of the campaign.

For several women in Nandigram who were witness to the violent land agitation of 2007-08, the high-voltage contest has rekindled fears of violence after results are declared on May 2. “Suvendu looked after us on behalf of Didi. And now we have been asked to pick one,” says the elderly Narmada Sith, who was tortured during the anti-land acquisition movement.

Sith’s fears are not unfounded. Despite the huge deployment of Central forces in West Bengal, the Election Commission of India has not been able to insulate the State from poll-related violence. Till April 22, several incidents of voters being threatened, clashes between political parties, and the killing of political workers have been reported. In the fourth phase of polling, at Sitalkuchi Assembly in north Bengal’s Cooch Behar district, Central forces opened fire killing four people. They maintain that they fired in self-defence. A primary assessment of the violence suggests that more than 20 people have lost their lives since the Model Code of Conduct was put in place and more than 30 candidates have been attacked during the poll process.

Memories of violence and “area domination” clashes are heard not only in Nandigram, but in many other parts of the State too. In Singur, an elderly farmer, Vivekananda Das, says he was beaten up by the police during the land agitation in 2006 and was only able to re-cultivate his land after 14 years, in 2020.

In the Jangalmahal region, which was gripped by mindless violence from 2008 to 2011, 30-year-old Chiranjib Maity from Jhargram stays away from the rallies conducted by Chhatradhar Mahato of the the Trinamool. Mahato led the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities, the frontal organisation of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), before joining the Trinamool last year after spending more than 10 years in jail. Maity’s father was killed by the CPI (Maoist) before his own eyes in 2010.

In Darjeeling, which witnessed a 100-day lockdown and economic blockade in 2017, during which at least 11 persons lost their lives, the elections present an opportunity for the people to express their political preferences. While there are broad-based State-level issues dominating the Assembly polls, West Bengal remains a story of many revolutions and mutinies, big and small, and they will determine the outcome of the polls, say observers.

Delivery of welfare schemes

For the Trinamool, the biggest poll plank is the delivery of welfare schemes. Banerjee claims that her government has launched 70 welfare schemes. Some of them like Kanyashree (which provides a one-time grant of Rs. 25,000 for a girl child who studies till Class 12) and Rupashree (which provides a one-time handout of Rs. 25,000 for a girl’s marriage for economically stressed families) are targeted towards girls.

In densely populated North and South 24 Parganas (64 seats, of which the ruling Trinamool won 56 in 2016), the party is banking on such schemes to see it through. But though the Trinamool chief is popular, there is resentment against the party. “Didi is good. But very few people can say the same of local Trinamool workers,” says Bulti Das of Champahati in South 24 Parganas, who was given some seed money for poultry farming. Former bureaucrat Dilip Ghosh explains that though the Trinamool has done a lot of good work, such as giving rice at Rs. 2 a kg, it has not allowed people to voice their concerns. Recalling the words of Santosh Rana, one of the leaders of the Naxal movement, Ghosh believes that it is the “Trinamool’s lack of democracy that has pulled the BJP to the State”.

Ghosh, who was Secretary of Panchayat and Rural Development and later Health and Family Welfare, says during the 34-year Left Front rule, there was “a sort of class alliance in rural Bengal and it was an open secret that benefits were linked to party loyalty”. With the Trinamool in power, “the MLAs and the bureaucracy appear to be more powerful than panchayat functionaries. Like in the later part of the Left regime, the Trinamool has also given an impression that you need to be with the party to get benefits,” he says.

A Professor who has followed the rise of the Trinamool points out that control of local administrative bodies is vital to the party’s electoral success. “The Trinamool’s narrative of welfare transfers may not work as a section of its leaders at the grassroots level were involved in corruption, taking ‘cut money’ for disbursement of schemes. In case of some schemes like honorarium to imams and muezzins, the BJP accused the Trinamool of appeasement politics,” he says.

According to Ardhendu Sen, former Chief Secretary of West Bengal, some of the development schemes of the Trinamool government have been well implemented, “but the party has destroyed the panchayats”. He says, “Whatever the people get today is what Mamata wants to give. The food situation has improved, but not health as she publicises. As for Kanyashree, I looked at whether the school dropout rate is going down, but there is no comprehensive evidence of that. Her reign has been a mixed bag.” After the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Trinamool government embarked on some “course correction”, launching outreach programmes like Duare Sarkar (government at the doorstop), Paray Paray Samadhan (resolving issues in the neighbourhood) and Swasthya Sathi (a health insurance scheme where the medical card is handed over to the oldest woman member of the family).

Blow to democracy

For bureaucrats, the biggest difference between the Left and Trinamool governments is that the latter seems to have stopped taking into account inputs from the ground. “Under the Left regime, there was some semblance of consultation with the people. Now, if you ask for something, leaders get annoyed,” says Sen.

The 2018 panchayat elections dealt a blow to grassroots democracy and the three-tier panchayat network, say voters and leaders. Not only were Opposition candidates not allowed to file nomination papers but even dissidents within the ruling party were not allowed to contest, say Left and Congress leaders. The Trinamool won 34% of the seats during that election, about 20,000 without a single vote being cast. State Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury claims that on the day of polling, 70-80 people were killed. Veteran Left leaders who led their supporters to file nomination papers were assaulted. The ruling party ensured that not a single civic body was administered by the Opposition and all barring the Siliguri Municipal Corporation were run by the Trinamool.

It is this stifling of the Opposition that gave BJP oxygen in the State, say both Left and Congress leaders. Also, the Trinamool’s over-reliance on minority politics has afforded the Hindu right a political space. The BJP vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls was 17%. It dropped to 10% in the 2016 Assembly polls and rose to 40% in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

“In Bengal, people vote for a party not because of ideological affiliation but because of the perception of protection against violence. If the party they have traditionally voted for cannot protect them in the face of violence perpetrated by hoodlums close to the party in power, their allegiance is bound to shift to the one which can. While the BJP’s capacity to resist Trinamool violence has increased significantly over the last three years, it is ultimately this balance of coercion that will decide who wins rural Bengal,” says a teacher.

The BJP’s might and muscle

Taking full advantage of this rancour, the BJP has used its “might and muscle” to set foot in Bengal. It has worked assiduously on the disgruntlement on the ground and used defections as a political tool to poach leaders of the ruling party. The politics of defections started in West Bengal in 2011, when MLAs of the Congress defected to the Trinamool even though both the parties had joined hands and contested polls to defeat the Left Front government.

In 2016, the Trinamool stormed to power for a second term with 211 seats, but the party continued to break into the rank and file of the Opposition.Of the 44 Congress MLAs who won the 2016 Assembly polls, more than 20 defected to the Trinamool, says senior Congress leader Abdul Mannan. Taking a leaf out of the Trinamool handbook, the BJP began to engineer defections before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Senior Trinamool leaders like Mukul Roy, Arjun Singh, Nisith Pramanik and Locket Chatterjee switched to the BJP and the party won 18 out of 42 Lok Sabha seats in the State. Once the BJP got its formula right, it began to woo more members of the Trinamool. In December 2020, one of the key ministers of the Trinamool, Adhikari, joined the BJP. He was soon followed by Rajib Banerjee. By the time the State went to the polls, more than 30 MLAs of the Trinamool had defected to the BJP, and many were given tickets.

What is most crucial to the rise of the BJP in Bengal is that the party gained strength without participating in any prolonged people’s movement like Singur or Nandigram, say observers. It has used defections, religious polarisation using the trope of infiltration and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and also highlighted communal violence in some parts of the State to stake claim to power.

In many areas of rural Bengal, villagers talk about a desire for change. “Onek toh dekhlam, baam ke, didi ke, ebar dekhi notun party ke diye(We have seen the Left and Trinamool, let us try a new party),” says a young man waiting for Home Minister Amit Shah’s road show at Nandigram. A farmer in the agriculture-rich Bardhaman district is candid: “If there is a new broom, do we use the old one?” Similar sentiments are echoed in Jhargram (the BJP did very well in this erstwhile Maoist belt in the Lok Sabha elections, winning all four seats), Howrah, Hooghly and North and South 24 Parganas. To build on this, the Prime Minister and the BJP top brass including party chief J.P. Nadda, Home Minister Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath besides State BJP president Dilip Ghosh held rallies and road shows. Modi held over 20 public rallies across the State.

Identity politics

The campaign has been bitter, fractious and communal. The Election Commission has taken some note of the polarisation, but not enough, says a senior Congress leader. Speaking in Bidhannagar, which went to the polls on April 17, on the city’s north-eastern fringes, Shah said “only the BJP can stop infiltration in Bengal. Communists, Congress and the Trinamool have vote banks in ‘ghuspetias(infiltrators)’.” Campaigning in Asansol, the Prime Minister raked up the 2018 riots: “Who supported the rioters? Who undertook the policy of appeasement? For whom did the police support the rioters? There is only one answer. Everyone is saying ‘because of Didi’.” The Trinamool was quick to retort that the person the BJP had blamed then for being a bystander, Jitendra Tiwari, is now with the saffron party. In Nandigram and other parts of Purbo and Paschim Medinipur, Adhikari has constantly harped on the “70:30” divide of Hindus and Muslims in Bengal. The Muslims make up 27% of the population, according to the 2011 Census.

Biswanath Chakraborty, psephologist and professor at Rabindra Bharati University, says this is a watershed election because Bengal is witnessing the rise of identity politics — not just of Hindus and Muslims, but also Dalit sections like Matuas and Rajbanshis. The BJP has focussed on getting the disaffected and neglected elements together from all walks of life to rally against the Trinamool. The Matuas are Hindu migrants from Bangladesh and the BJP has promised to implement the Citizenship (Amendment) Act if voted to power. On the ground, a section of Matuas do not want special favours and point out that they already have Aadhaar and voter cards, markers of Indian citizenship. The Matuas had backed Trinamool earlier but are now divided between the BJP and the ruling party — they have a say in at least 30 seats.

An experiment called the ISF

With the Left vote share falling from 26.6% in 2016 to 7.5% in 2019, the Left Front felt it “had to do something” to stop all anti-incumbency votes from going to the BJP. In an attempt to remain relevant in the contest, the Left and Congress alliance joined hands with the ISF , formed by Furfura Sharif cleric Abbas Siddique. “This will help stop votes from going to the BJP, at least a part of them,” claims Mohammed Salim, Polit Bureau member of the CPI(M). “The ISF is fighting in 28 seats,” says Abbas Siddique’s brother Naushad Siddique, chairman of the ISF and a candidate in Muslim-dominated Bhangar, located about 40 km from Kolkata. In 2019, the Trinamool had led in 60 of the 74 Assembly segments in which Muslims constitute over 50% of the electorate. “The Muslim vote is likely to be divided in places where the ISF is strong,” says Chakraborty. “And that will not help the Trinamool.”

“A section of Left supporters who first went to the Trinamool is likely to have voted for the BJP in 2019 and may go with either the BJP or the Left-Congress-ISF alliance,” says Ambikesh Mahapatra, who teaches at Jadavpur University and had contested the 2016 Assembly polls with support from the Left and Congress. Things may have changed for the Congress, however, in the Muslim-majority seats of Malda and Murshidabad after the Sitalkuchi firing. “The Muslim vote may consolidate behind the Trinamool,” says a local leader.

The BJP has targeted the Trinamool government over alleged corruption, particularly using the term “cut money”. It has taken on Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee, the ruling party’s MP from Diamond Harbour. Those who have defected from the Trinamool to the BJP often attack the ‘bhaipo’ or nephew saying he is a “tolabaj(extortionist)”. While there have been cases of local-level functionaries at panchayats being involved in taking “cut money” and the Trinamool chairperson has asked people to return the money, Abhishek Banerjee has turned out to be an easy target for the Opposition.

High turnout amidst a pandemic

Charges of mismanagement in dealing with the pandemic are a cause of concern for the ruling party. But now there is anger against the BJP too, in some sections, as Modi continued to hold large rallies where most were seen packed in close proximity without masks, even as cases have soared. The Prime Minister has cancelled his rallies for the last two phases. Banerjee has also promised to connect with the electorate virtually. On April 21, the State’s daily COVID-19 infections crossed 10,000 for the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic.

On April 22, the day of polling for the sixth phase, the Calcutta High Court came down heavily on the Election Commission saying it is only issuing circulars but not ensuring that COVID-19 protocols are implemented. Despite the surge, there has been no drop in voter percentage. In each of the six phases, more than 80% polling was registered.

The 2021 Assembly polls are no ordinary elections, say political observers. “This is the first time that the State is witnessing the rise of the BJP as well as a high-pitched campaign that started months before the poll dates were announced,” says Chakraborty. The people on the ground have picked sides and while some are willing to stick their necks out, others maintain a strategic silence.

Its second wave is a result of poor political choices, bad communications, and neglect of public health principles

India is in its darkest days of the pandemic, but there may be still darker days to come. With one in three new infections globally occurring in the country, India’s astronomic surge in cases — more than 3 lakh daily — is propelling the global pandemic, and represents a grave threat to the economic and social well-being of the Indian people. The political leaders, who have been too slow and largely failed to take the outbreak seriously, are now coming to realise the gravity of the task at hand. Lockdowns are spreading, but always one step behind the virus. Given the catastrophic state of affairs, effective intervention will require much more rigorous and extensive action.

A data gap

It is difficult to grasp the true scope of this crisis. New Delhi’s test positivity rate — the rate at which people getting tested for coronavirus receive positive results — recently climbed above 30%. If it takes three tests to find one positive patient, it means that we are likely missing many, many infections. Indeed, one would not be surprised if the true number of infections was now above 10 lakh daily. And we can see it in all those undocumented deaths. While the official statistics suggest 2,000 deaths daily, the true number again is much higher. One crematorium in New Delhi has gone from managing 20 bodies daily to 100; the constant running of the furnaces has caused its steel chimneys to melt.

Premature celebration

How did India find itself in this predicament? Certainly, the country faced many challenges in controlling the coronavirus, including the second largest population in the world, and one spread over an enormous, geographically and socially diverse country comprising both very rural areas and sprawling cities. But India’s leaders have made a very difficult situation worse. Early this year, daily new infections dropped to less than 10,000 — a remarkable achievement, driven in part by successful efforts to enforce social distancing and other public health measures. India began to roll out homegrown vaccines to much fanfare. Bharatiya Janata Party President J.P. Nadda declared that Prime Minister Modi had “saved the country,” comparing India’s performance under Modi favourably to that of the United States.

But this premature celebration has ushered in a nightmare. The resumption of large, in-person political rallies and other large gatherings are part of the fuel that has caused COVID-19 to explode. The Prime Minister recently declared, “I can see a sea of masses” at a rally in West Bengal, apparently oblivious to the grave risk that such a sea poses to his supporters. The government also took almost no steps to limit the risk posed by theKumbh Melafestival, ironically claiming that infection precautions would present too great a threat to crowd safety. As a result, theKumbh Melahas resulted in thousands of positive tests, including several sadhus and former King Gyanendra of Nepal, with many thousands of infections sure to go undetected as pilgrims return to their home communities and expose their families and neighbours.

Control strategies

The virus has taken advantage of the overconfidence of the government over the past months, making matters worse. Viruses mutate constantly, but it is when they are allowed to spread unchecked through large populations that more infectious and more deadly variants become established and change the dynamics of outbreaks. India is now faced with managing a renewed epidemic driven at least in part by the B1.617 “double mutant” strain of SARS-CoV-2, with similar mutations to more virulent strains found in Brazil and South Africa. At the moment, however, scientists and public health policymakers are drawing on extremely limited data, as far too few cases of infection are being analysed to provide a complete and actionable picture of the spread of variants and their influence on disease dynamics. India must rapidly scale up its genomic surveillance efforts to give scientists and public health researchers the data they need to guide policy decisions.

How can the astronomical growth of the pandemic in India be brought under control? Short-term targeted lockdowns can help — the kind we are seeing in New Delhi and elsewhere. They will break the chains of transmission and can curb the exponential growth we are seeing across the nation.

A second strategy is expanding access to vaccines although its benefits are likely to take weeks to be felt. Vaccine rollout without massive outreach and support for the complex, the challenging logistics of administering vaccines, and simply broadening eligibility requirements will do little to slow the virus. The lockdowns we are seeing now will almost surely need to be extended beyond a week and will need to be in place until infection numbers start coming down substantially. It is worth remembering that lockdowns exact a terrible economic and social cost and are a strategy of last resort.

Steps to take

So what might we do to minimise the time that cities and regions need to be in lockdown? India needs a surge of testing. Right now, given high test positivity rates, it is clear that the nation is not testing enough. Ideally, India would increase its testing rates several times over, with the goal of getting the positivity rate under 5%. The nation has the capacity to do that many more tests but has not made it enough of a priority.

We also know that universal mask wearing when people are outside their homes can be enormously helpful in curbing the spread of the disease. Given the crowds of Indian cities and towns and the high rates of infections, universal mask wearing, ideally with high quality masks, is critical and must be mandatory.

And banning all major indoor and outdoor events, including rallies, religious festivals, weddings, and so forth, is essential. If those were to continue, any hope of bringing this outbreak under control would quickly vanish.

Of course, India’s pandemic will finally come to an end when enough Indians are vaccinated — and targeting vaccines now most quickly and effectively can help control the spread of the virus. Whatever strategy India takes to administer vaccines (focus on elderly to save lives, young people to slow spread, etc.), the key is ensuring the country has enough vaccines. Here, the government needs to work with manufacturers like the Serum Institute, identify what is slowing them down, and use the full clout of the Indian government to drive production higher.

Looking forward

India is now suffering the worst days of the pandemic, going through a second wave of coronavirus as a result of poor political choices, poor communications, and neglect of public health principles. For months, too many celebrated that India had “beaten the virus” even though none of us could explain how that could be and why. In this crisis, there is much that individuals can do to protect themselves and their families. But political leaders must do much more. The good news is that we know it can be done, and we know how to do it. Focus on public health measures, improve vaccinations, universal masking, and effective coordination across public health efforts. If we do these things, infections can turn, hospitals can stop being overwhelmed, and life can begin to go back to normal.

Dr. Ashish K. Jha is Dean, Brown University School of Public Health, U.S.

Political acts depriving people of their rights must stop and there needs to be a movement to strengthen Panchayati raj

What is progress? When has a government achieved its goals? What is the true indication that a government is not just planning, but also putting into action those plans? The half-hearted execution of a plan by a government that the people chose is not a sign of achievement. The government must ensure that even the last man sitting in the remote corner of the last row should have access to the benefits of the plan. This is why it is crucial that strong local bodies are formed to enable genuine feasibility and execution. The Cholas were the pioneers in the formation of local bodies as part of a well-organised hierarchy to oversee the implementation of progressive plans.

The journey of Panchayati raj

“The voice of the people is the voice of god; The voice of the Panchayat is the voice of the people,” is the quote attributed to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Panchayati raj ensures that the voices of the people are heard loud and clear. But, drawing up a path for a brilliant organisational structure like the Panchayat raj, and then travelling along the path is not a simple task.

Realising that seamless administration is impossible without power sharing, the British, in 1884, passed the Madras Local Boards Act. With this, the British formed unions in both small towns and big cities and began to appoint members to ensure better administration. To a certain extent, this brought about positive changes in basic parameters such as health and hygiene.

With the advent ofgrampanchayat laws in 1920, people over 25 years of age were bestowed with the right to vote and choose their panchayat members.

Even though Gandhiji was constantly laying emphasis on the importance of autonomously ruled villages, the idea received constitutional recognition only in 1992.

It was only after the 73rd Amendment in the 1990s, that the Panchayati raj law came into force. This was the law that brought about massive turning points such as the initiation ofgrama sabha, a three-tier Panchayati raj methodology of governance, reservation for the downtrodden and women, consistency in economic development, local body elections once in five years, the formation of the State Election Commission, Finance Commission, and the power to draft the rules and responsibilities of the Panchayat.

The regions which were better equipped with basic facilities and which were more developed than the villages were brought under one coordinated body, namely, the municipality. The district capitals were further slotted into a combined parameter, namely, the corporation. Administration was transferred to the people, from the politicians and other officials.

The lofty dream of Gandhiji to make each village of the independent India a republic organisation, and to reiterate that the autonomous administration of villages should be made the foundation of the entire country’s administration was heard and he lay stress on the active participation of the people in governance.

Ideal platform

For seemingly trivial and easily resolvable issues, the villages did not have to seek the assistance of the State or the Central governments.Grama sabhascould and can be the platform to resolve such issues. According to the rules framed by the Tamil Nadu government, it is mandatory thatgrama sabhasmeet at least four times in a calendar year. Besides,grama sabhascan be convened as and when the necessity arises. Everygrama sabhameeting ensures the equal right to highlight the issues that disrupt life. In addition to this, the elected members of the Panchayat are obliged to read out the financial statements and balance sheet to ensure transparency.

The reality

The decisions taken during agrama sabhameeting and the proposed solutions with a feasible deadline are potent and powerful. Unfortunately, the reality today is thatgrama sabhashave become more like auction houses. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, the present government did not even make an attempt to seek the opinions and the consensus of the people on significant issues such as an eight-lane highway project and even a major hydrocarbon project. Even though the government announced that people’s opinions would be considered, it went ahead and conducted meetings, which were marked by poor attendance and poor representation from the people. Even then, the government went ahead with the approval of projects which are impediments to normal life.

The truth is that keeping in mind a single goal, of profit, politicians hold ‘negotiations’ with the officials. Several projects are being implemented for the benefit of private and corporate entities.

Sadly, in this age, women do not find themselves in major administrative roles in the local bodies, though, on paper, women are shown to be a considerable force.

The Makkal Needhi Maiam has been laying stress on the importance ofgrama sabhasand has been extending its support in a very transparent manner to rejuvenate the dying system of Panchayati raj.

The Kerala example

The neighbouring State of Kerala has been diligently working toward ensuring the proper use of allotted funds, and ensuring the efficiency of administration and eligible member appointments. Thus, it stands tall as being exemplary. If Tamil Nadu wants to stand tall too, it needs to take steps to enable the power of administration to Panchayats, as stated in the Constitution.

To ensure efficiency, we need to strengthen ourgrama sabhas, hold areasabhasin cities, form ward committees, hold online Panchayat meetings, ensure decent remuneration to Panchayat chiefs and councillors and also bestow thegrama sabhawith the power to revoke appointed members and representatives. These steps are what will ensure real growth in the State.

The State-appointed corporation commissioner faces mammoth challenges when a member of the Opposition party takes charge as a mayor. The constant and meaningless conflicts between the ruling party and the mayor from the Opposition party make it impossible for the corporation commissioner to execute what was agreed upon in a meeting. The officials kowtow to pressures from the ruling party. The same treatment is meted out to municipal councillors and district councillors.

In Tamil Nadu

The Constitution is clear in stating that local body elections must be conducted once in five years. But the ruling party keeps postponing the holding of local body elections, which is a breach of the Constitution. Strangely, this form of disrespect never materialises when it comes to the Assembly elections!

Local body elections have been held once in five years for the last 25 years, since 1996. But for the first time, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government has travelled on without holding a local body election. This is not only an act of escapism but also a stain on the State’s political history.

The recent reconstitution of nine districts in the State is an invalid excuse to postpone the holding of local body elections. The government gives a variety of empty and irrelevant excuses to postpone these elections and to cancelgrama sabhameetings. The time has come to stop this act — of depriving people of their basic rights.

The demand for federal rule in the Centre and autonomous rule in the States should resonate along with the need to have autonomous local bodies too. We must collectively ensure that Panchayati raj should be strengthened. This should be the outcome of a peoples’ movement.

I wish to end by citing Gandhiji’s belief that the voices of people will resolve what violence can never be successful in resolving. Let the peoples’ voices be heard. We should also note that every year, April 24 is celebrated as Panchayat raj day.

Kamal Haasan, actor, director and Padma Bhushan awardee, is President, Makkal Needhi Maiam

The ECI woke up late to the ill-effects the long campaign in Bengal had on public health

The Election Commission of India’s decision to restrict campaigning for the remaining two phases of the West Bengal Assembly election is an instance of wisdom dawning late. Nevertheless, it will help limit the public health damage to what was already caused by an unreasonably extended election cycle in the State during the pandemic. After the Calcutta High Court sought an action taken report on what measures it was adopting in the context of the spreading pandemic, the Election Commission has ordered the cancellation of all rallies and roadshows. Only meetings that are attended by no more than 500 people will be allowed now. In its order, the Election Commission noted “with anguish” that parties and candidates were not adhering to safety protocols. Daily campaign hours had already been cut and campaigning was to stop 72 hours prior to polling, instead of 48 hours, as per an earlier directive. A bit of foresight would have been more helpful. The State is recording high numbers of infection. Bengal’s health infrastructure is not robust to deal with a heavy surge. All parties organised rallies amid the pandemic. But parties other than the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been calling for clubbing the last phases together. In the face of the Election Commission’s refusal to do so, the Congress, the Trinamool Congress and the Left had discontinued big rallies.

The only party that did not have a problem with the election being spread over eight phases over five weeks has been the BJP. Allegations that this helped the BJP that was dependent on its star campaigners and workers from other States moving from one region to the next carries weight. It is ironic that the BJP that argues for clubbing together all elections across the country has been happy about such a prolonged process in Bengal. Even after it became evident that the new surge was turning out to be severe, the BJP continued with big rallies in the State. Prime Minister Narendra Modi gloated about massive turnouts at his rallies. BJP leaders declared that there was no correlation between rally turnouts and the spread of the pandemic. It is not that India sleepwalked into this disaster; it was dragged in a boisterous procession of triumphalism and hubris by the political leadership. The unusual and unreasonable schedule of the Bengal election during the pandemic was unwise and avoidable. The Election Commission’s corrective measures at the last moment can only be of limited help. The lack of foresight while drawing up the schedule and monitoring the campaign bordered on complicity in the surge of new infections.

As hospital fires are on the rise alongsidea pandemic, Maharashtra must act on safety

Maharashtra has been facing the merciless onslaught of COVID-19 cases, but its public health response has also had to combat a second, connected scourge of hospital fires. In recent days, the State has been adding, on average, over 60,000 cases and losing a few hundred lives daily in the second wave of the pandemic, straining its infrastructure and institutions. It is also frequently hit by deadly fires, of the kind witnessed on Friday in the ICU of a small hospital in Mumbai’s suburb of Virar, where at least 14 patients severely ill with the coronavirus died. With about seven lakh active cases now, many of the patients in the State require oxygen support and hospitals are stretched to the limit. Many are small institutions, while a number of facilities are simply not built for purpose, such as the hospital located in a mall in Mumbai’s Bhandup area where several lives were lost in a blaze last month. Now that many COVID-19 hospital fires have been reported during the first peak of the pandemic last year and later, in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh in particular, State authorities should be able to document their learnings and put out a checklist to save patients. They should clarify whether fire safety guidelines for hospitals issued by the Centre in September last year, prioritising a strict compliance strategy, third party accreditation on safety, and adoption of a fire response plan were acted upon. This is particularly important in Maharashtra’s context, given that devastating fires have been recurring, and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray should lose no time in ordering a comprehensive audit.

With no end in sight to serious hospital fires, there may be a case for judicial oversight and systematic inquiries into such mishaps. COVID-19 has turned into a conflagration, and the Supreme Court has takensuo motucognisance of many aspects of pandemic management, such as availability of oxygen and essential drugs, method and manner of vaccination, and declaration of lockdowns. Nearly 10 High Courts have taken up pressing matters pertaining to COVID-19. It would be logical to add fire safety to such scrutiny, to make accidents rare. Evidently, State bureaucracies can achieve a lot more on their own, if they diligently implement existing regulations. There is a professional knowledge base available with important features. It calls for ICUs to be equipped with an exhaust system to prevent smoke accumulation in a fire, ventilation cut-outs to stop a blaze from spreading, periodic maintenance of safety equipment and, very importantly, an evacuation plan for the sickest patients, who may be attached to life-saving equipment. It is undoubtedly complicated to retrofit poorly designed hospitals for high safety standards, especially when it has to be executed on the go, and every bed is precious in the pandemic. But as each successive blaze proves, business as usual may extract a heavy price. Patients should be able to go to a hospital without the fear of fires threatening their lives there.