‘NO ENTRY ZONE’ FOR VISITORS: CALCUTTA HIGH COURT ON DURGA PUJA PANDALS IN BENGAL
Author: Tanya Sharma, IV year of B.A.,LL.B.(Hons.) specialization in Energy Laws, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun
“Life has not been normal for the human species since March 2020, and it may have been better if restrictions were put in place as to how the Durga Puja festivities would be celebrated this year”.
- Calcutta High Court
On 19th October 2020, the Calcutta High Court ordered that Durga Puja Pandals in West Bengal will be out of bounds for the visitors ‘in public interest’ after expressing its concern over the congregation of people during the auspicious time of Durga Puja which could result in an ‘uncontrollable rise’ in the number of COVID-19 cases. The order given by the Calcutta High Court is made applicable to over 34000 Durga Puja Committees across the State, including over 3,000 in Kolkata.
A Division Bench of the High Court comprising Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Arjit Banerjee, while hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by Ajay Kumar, stated that no one except the selected members of the Puja Organizing Committee would be allowed to enter the canopy of the Pandals. The Bench, in its judgment, stated that concerning the public interest, all Pandals where Durga Puja is to be celebrated this year would be made ‘no-entry zones’ for the visitors. Further, a five-meter zone would be created beyond the extremities of the Pandals on all sides in case of the smaller Pandals and a ten-meter zone beyond the extremities of the pandal on all sides in case of the larger Pandals which would be a part of the no-entry zone.
In other words, the area covered by the Pandals and the additional area around the Pandals extending 5 meters from the smaller Pandals and 10 meters from the larger Pandals would be barricaded as the no-entry zone. The Court added that the only exception would be made applicable for the named personnel, including the priest, who will be identified by the Puja Organizers in advance and whose names would be displayed for checks to be made at any point of time. 15 persons would be named in the list that would be having access to the no-entry zone at all the time in case of smaller Pandals whereas the number of persons increases to 25 to 30 in case of larger to largest Pandals. The directions propounded by the Court would apply to all Public Puja Pandals all over the State, including the 34,000 Puja Pandals which have obtained grants from the State.
The Calcutta High Court order is significant as it came in the backdrop of rising COVID-19 cases and deaths across the State. On 19th October 2020, the toll in West Bengal touched 6,119 with a record of the new number of cases, i.e. 3,992 which was reported in a day, taking the State’s tally to over 3.25 lakh. Moreover, in the past seven days, the State reported 437 COVID-19 deaths and over 27,000 new cases. The authorities were startled when they saw overcrowding of people in the markets and shopping malls in the light of the festival. Moreover, people were seen without face masks, disdaining social distancing norms and jolting each other as they shopped at the last minute. Even the doctors intimated their anxiety that if the same thing continued, then the hospitals would run out of COVID-19 beds for patients which could result in a complete collapse of the State’s healthcare systems.
On 18th October 2020, thousands of people flocked to Sreebhumi Sporting Club Durga Puja when it was thrown open to the public. Thus, it is presumed that if visitors are allowed inside the Puja Pandals in huge numbers then safety and security will take a back seat and this evoked the High Court to crack down on the festival this year with the main aim to discourage the common citizen from swarming around Pandals in a proffer to check the spread of the disease.
After passing of the order, Durgotsab Forum decided to file a review petition in the High Court to which on 20th October 2020, the Calcutta High Court increased the entry of members from 30 to 60 for larger Puja Pandals. On the other hand, Durga Puja Committees delineated the fresh plans which would work as an alternative way to allow visitors to take a look at their idols. Puja Committees which erect Pandals in public parks and playgrounds have an upper hand in redesigning their pandal layouts. According to the Court’s order, they have the option for shifting the barricades and opening up the pandal further, allowing a finer view of the idol from a distance. Similarly, several committees have decided to live stream the puja on their websites and other social media handles, while some have decided to install giant screens outside their Pandals to allow visitors to view the idols.
The Calcutta High Court’s order has come as a blow for small businesses, namely food stalls which mainly set up their shops near the Pandals during the festival. Without the entry of visitors, it is credible for them to run into huge losses. Even the advertisers, who book their slots in and around Puja Pandals, are likely to incur losses this year. Although there are no restrictions outside Pandals, yet it is to be seen whether people still assemble around the Pandals in an attempt to view the idols from afar.
Also, there is colossal pressure on the restaurants and shopping malls as the visitors denied to enter into Puja Pandals are expected to gather around such places to soak in the festive spirit and also it will leave a grave impact on the city’s traffic as there would be overcrowding on the streets.
Lastly, this judgment of the High Court is described as ‘historic’ by the doctors stating that if the Puja Committees and Clubs adhere to the Court then the COVID-19 transmission would be restricted to a certain level.
Tanya Sharma, a 4th-year student at the School of Law, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun. Passionate about gaining knowledge in the legal field, she likes to write articles and research papers on various subjects of law. Apart from academics, she likes to travel, dance, and read novels.