Govt invokes Sec 35 of Disaster Management Act to fight Covid, states fume

A Rohingya Muslim man prepares to walk through a full-body sanitization tunnel installed at COVID-19 dedicated Government Medical College hospital, in Jammu. Photo: PTI
Stung by the implication that their efforts to curtail the spread of coronavirus disease (Covid-19) has been sloppy, states — led by Opposition parties — are expected to begin voicing their protest against the move by the central government to invoke Section 35 of the Disaster Management Act.

The Act permits the Union government to constitute inter-ministerial central teams (IMCTs) and despatch them to states to make on-spot assessments, issue necessary directions to state authorities, and submit their report to the Centre.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has constituted six such teams which are, for the moment, headed by bureaucrats and will tour affected areas to report omissions and commissions by the state governments in the management of the Covid-19 situation.

These include incidents of violence on frontline health care professionals, violations of social distancing norms, and movement of vehicles in urban areas.

“The teams will focus on compliance and implementation of lockdown measures, according to guidelines, supply of essential commodities, social distancing, preparedness of the health infrastructure, safety of health professionals and conditions of relief camps for labour and the poor,” an MHA directive says, adding, “violations of lockdown measures have been reported, which pose a serious health hazard to the public.” 

West Bengal Chief Minister (CM) Mamata Banerjee has already questioned the ‘basis’ of the teams and refused to entertain them.

“We welcome all constructive support and suggestions, especially from the central government in negating the Covid-19 crisis. However, the basis on which the Centre is proposing to deploy IMCTs in select districts in India, including a few in West Bengal under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, is unclear,” the CM said, adding that until the criterion for this move is shared with the state government, “it would not be possible for the state government to move ahead on this, as it might not be consistent with the spirit of federalism”.

In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Banerjee said the central team arrived without any notice. Banerjee said everything was done behind the state government’s back and the team liaised directly with the central forces like the Central Reserve Police Force and Sashastra Seema Bal for logistical support. Banerjee also said the charge that lockdown conditions were violated by some districts was “devoid of any facts”.

“The selection of districts and observations made unilaterally are nothing but a figment of the imagination and unfortunate,” said Banerjee, adding the state government had “proactively announced a lockdown before it was announced by the central government and extended it to April 30 even before the Centre extended it on April 14.”

The MHA has already despatched one team, headed by Additional Secretary in the Department of Financial Services Sanjiv Kaushik to Rajasthan, along with other bureaucrats from the Ministry of Health and Consumer Affairs, which will go to Jaipur — the district named by the MHA as among a handful of districts where the Covid-19 spread is particularly alarming.

A team headed by Manoj Joshi, additional secretary in the Ministry of Food with members from the Ministry of Health, is being despatched to Maharashtra and another similar team headed by Sanjay Malhotra, additional secretary in the power ministry, will go to Pune.

Additional Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture Abhilaksh Likhi has been despatched with a similar team to Madhya Pradesh where the MHA has expressed serious concern over the situation in Indore where, so far, at least twice teams of health workers have been assaulted.

However, the greatest pushback is from West Bengal which has been named by the MHA as having the largest number of districts where the situation is ‘alarming’.  Kolkata, Howrah, 24 Parganas North, and Midnapore  in Bengal have been allotted to Apurva Chandra, additional secretary in the Ministry of Defence, while Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, and Kalimpong are going to be inspected by Vineet Joshi, additional secretary in the Ministry of Human Resource Development.

With the West Bengal government announcing it will not entertain these teams, the stage is set for a clash between the Centre and the state. Other Opposition-ruled states are also expected to throw down the gauntlet.

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