A festival, a wedding, a demonstration, a procession-Siliguri is never at rest. Vibrant with activities involving people of all strata and backgrounds, rich and poor, young and old, professionals and students, the city plays host not only to civil and religious or sports festivals but also to the fancies of the clubs, affluent individuals and various beliefs enacted by its ‘street children.’ The spirit of festivities transcends all physical and mental divides and restrictions in Siliguri.
Durga Puja, which is going to be held this year under the restrictions set by the government for the puja organizers and the pandal hoppers due to the Covid-19 pandemic, may turn out be a perfect example of this.
The organizers of almost all major puja committees in Siliguri may have reduced their budget by three to six times on an average because of the pandemic and the subsequent economic slowdown, but contrary to expectations of health and medical experts as well as the local administrators, the puja celebrations in the town his year is most unlikely to be a low-key affair.
If the spike in online shopping and the shopping spree around the shops, stores and shopping arcades in the town during the past fortnight is any indication of the things to come, then the puja celebrations this year may be a boisterous carnival-like extravaganza as it usually is.
With the entire state entering the puja-mode and festive-season shopping going on in full swing, the state is already witnessing a steady spike in Covid- 19 numbers.
The positivity rate – the proportion of people testing positive to those tested – has shot up from around 6.6 per cent on September 5 to around 8.3 per cent on October 5 in the state.
Experts have already cautioned that the upcoming festivals may further add to the rising number of Covid-19 cases in north Bengal, if proper precautions are not taken, especially in the months of October and November.
But despite all guidelines and warnings, people are out on the streets in large numbers and the markets are getting hugely crowded. The members of puja committees are also gathering where pandals are coming up, and as the case-fatality rate in India is declining steadily, most of the people on the streets as well as many of the puja organizers are not following the Covid-19 related standard operating procedures properly, raising fears of a sharp spike in the number of covid cases after the pujas.
“If the shopping does not cause the fall, the jostling through a sea of crowd at the shops and stores of Siliguri will. It’s Durga Puja time again and people are out with their shopping bags to buy goodies for the family. But it is dangerous to see that almost 40 percent of them are not wearing masks properly and almost none of them are maintaining any kind of physical distance especially in the shops and stores of the overcrowded shopping malls. The laborers erecting the puja pandals are not even wearing masks; leave alone the question of sanitizing themselves or maintaining physical distance. The town seems to be gearing up for a huge festivity with very little regard for Covid 19 restrictions,” said Pranab Narayan Roy Chowdhury, a senior resident of Ashrampara, whose office is situated bang next to a mall on the Sevoke Road.
Paromita Sarkar, who agreed with Mr Chowdhury, expressed serious doubts about the abilities of the authorities and the puja organizers to ensure that the Covid 19 SOPs are strictly maintained during the pujas. “The failure of the authorities to impose the Covid 19 restrictions at the crowded marketplaces in Siliguri clearly indicates that when people come out in large numbers on the streets of Siliguri during the pujas and flock the pandals in the evening, it would be almost impossible for the police and the civic authorities to tackle the situation. The puja organizers will have to play a major role in ensuring that the Covid restrictions are maintained in their puja premises. But all said and done, at the end of the day it is the responsibility of pandal hoppers to ensure that we do not witness an unprecedented spike in covid cases after the festival is over,” she said.