134 embankments washed away, says Mamata. Ex-minister Suvendu Adhikari is target
More than 130 river embankments built by the West Bengal’s irrigation department were washed away, chief minister Mamata Banerjee said at a meeting to review the impact of Cyclone Yaas on Thursday, ordering an inquiry into the functioning of the department that was led for a decade by two ministers who had crossed over to the Bharatiya Janata Party, Rajib Banerjee and Suvendu Adhikari.
“Was all the money going into the same water that the department was supposed to stop?” the chief minister said at the review meeting that was aired by television channels, a practice that she has adopted for nearly a decade.
Former minister Rajib Banerjee led the irrigation department from 2011 to 2018, From 2018 till December last year, the department was headed by Suvendu Adhikari, once her protege who moved to the BJP, contested the assembly elections from Nandigram in East Midnapore district and defeated Banerjee by 1,958 votes. During the election campaign, Banerjee referred to both as traitors.
At Thursday’s review meeting, Banerjee made no reference to the two former ministers as she reviewed the situation with bureaucrats and alleged that money was wasted by the irrigation department. Ordering an inquiry into the spending, she said, “How could embankments along the sea in Digha (in East Midnapore) get destroyed? Bridges on the Bidyadhari river were demolished too. The department took years to build these bridges. Every time I inquired, I was told the construction was on.”
East Midnapore is the home turf of the Adhikari family. Suvendu Adhikari’s father and younger brother hold two Lok Sabha seats in the district.
Rajib Banerjee faced questions even for his performance as forest minister from 2018 till he left the Trinamool Congress (TMC).
“After Amphan, we were supposed to plant 50 million mangrove trees in the Sunderbans to stop erosion. I want to know how many trees were planted?” said the chief minister.
Rajib Banerjee and Adhikari did not react to the chief minister’s remarks.
Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh appeared to speak in their defence.
“The mangrove forests in the Sundarbans region were devastated during the cyclone and the subsequent high tide because the mud embankments were too weak. Also, the government allowed many people to set up saltwater fisheries and tourist resorts by destroying forests and embankments.”
“The government was supposed to replace mud embankments with concrete ones. Rajib Banerjee started that work and hence he was removed from the irrigation department,” said Ghosh, suggesting that the fault lay at the chief minister’s door.
Without naming Rajib Banerjee, Ghosh said, “Knowledgeable people in the Sunderbans told us it is impossible to plant more than 0.5 million mangrove trees a year. Going by the chief minister’s plan, it will take a century to plant 50 million. Will she be around till then?”
Trinamool leaders said the two former ministers clearly do not have a defence.
“(Dilip) Ghosh is in no position to level counter-allegations. Though she did not name anyone, the chief minister made it apparent who was responsible for the devastation,” said TMC legislator and party spokesperson Tapas Roy.
In the recent polls, in which the TMC won 213 assembly seats against the BJP’s 77 (two BJP MLAs resigned later to retain their Lok Sabha seats), allegations of nepotism and corruption in the distribution of relief money for Amphan victims was made an issue by the opposition.
On Thursday, Banerjee declared that money for Yaas-affected families will be deposited directly in bank accounts and political leaders will not be allowed to play any role. She also announced that relief materials would be sent to the doorsteps of these families.
Suvendu Adhikari, now the leader of the opposition in the Bengal assembly, has demanded an all-party meeting be convened to assess the damage due to Cyclone Yaas and oversee the distribution of relief.
Most BJP MLAs and MPs in south Bengal toured cyclone-affected areas in their constituencies and distributed relief materials in a bid to stay ahead of the ruling party.