In Amphan-hit Sunderbans, aid ‘irregularities’ may hurt Trinamool
Madhusudan Mondol, 54, has been busy over the past few days, repairing the thatched roof of his hut with some fresh paddy straw. His mud-hut in Satjelia, an island in West Bengal’s Sunderbans delta, was badly damaged in May last year when cyclone Amphan ravaged the Sunderbans.
“This is the first paddy harvest we have got after the storm. The monsoon season is coming and I need to repair my house. The mud-wall also collapsed but has been repaired,” said Mondol, lamenting that the government-announced compensation never reached him. “I didn’t get a single paisa.”
On May 20 last year, cyclone Amphan pummelled through six districts of south Bengal leaving 98 dead and a trail of destruction. The islands on the Sunderbans, spread across two districts, North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas, and the coastal district of East Midnapore were the worst hit.
Now, 11 months later, the state’s ruling Trinamool Congress is facing the headwinds of that cyclone -- relied that never reached people.
“I didn’t get a single paisa even though my house was damaged/ I lost two goats and a few hens and my crops were also gone. But I have heard that many in the locality, who were close to the ruling party received the compensation,” said Joydeb Khatua, a resident of Sandeshkhali in North 24 Parganas.
The cyclone destroyed around 1.05 million hectares of cropland and killed around 900,000 cattle and poultry.
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It ravaged the Sunderbans, already singed by the climate crisis -- rising salinity levels, frequent floods, and cyclones. The delta has witnessed large scale human migration over the past 10 years after cyclone Aila hit the area in 2009, rendering croplands infertile for several years.
Four assembly seats in the Sunderbans, Gosaba, Patharpratima, Kakdwip and Sagar, go to the polls on April 1 in the second phase of the eight-phase elections in the state. The remaining nine seats in the area will go to polls in the third and fifth phase.
The TMC and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the latter buoyed by anti-incumbency and defections from the former are engaged in a bitter battle in the state.
“These areas are all TMC strongholds. Even though the BJP made impressive gains in other parts of the state in 2019 (the Lok Sabha polls, where it won 18 of the 42 seats) including north Bengal and the tribal belts of Jangalmahal, it failed to make any inroads here. But the situation seemed to have changed after Amphan. There is anger among the people,” said a former official of the Sunderbans Development Board who asked not to be named.
The Mamata Banerjee-led administration estimated that the cyclone inflicted damage worth ₹1.02 lakh crore – with the most losses coming from the destruction of 2.8 million houses. The state government announced a package of ₹7,250 crore, over and above the ₹1,000 crore package announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi after he made an aerial tour of the devastated area.
Banerjee announced that ₹20,000 would be transferred to the bank accounts of each of the roughly 500,000 families affected by the cyclone, and assured an additional ₹28,000 to each family under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation Scheme (MNREGS).
“But where did the money go? I can take you to a dozen families who never got any compensation like me. But there are people who got the money for just being close to the ruling party despite their houses suffering hardly any damage,” said Sanjib Maity, a resident of Mahisadal in East Midnapore, another constituency that goes to the polls along with 30 others on April 1.
Days after the relief operations started, there were widespread allegations from several districts that the compensation did not reach the real victims but went mostly to people close to the ruling party.
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Clashes broke out at the block and district level, and in some areas, women were at the forefront of the protests.
With less than a year left for the assembly elections at that time, Banerjee intervened. She punished a few block-level TMC leaders by either removing them or issuing them show cause notices; many were forced to return the money.
She claimed that the matter was being blown out of proportion, but also admitted that there were some mistakes in the distribution of relief.
“The chief minister has already said that there were some mistakes at the lower level, which were rectified and the guilty were punished. The CM also formed an all-party committee to oversee the relief operations,” said Tapas Roy, a TMC spokesperson.
But the BJP sees it otherwise.
“The CM said on multiple occasions that there were some mistakes and the money went into wrong accounts by mistake. I wonder why it always went into TMC accounts by mistake and nothing reached any BJP supporter’s account by mistake. As for the committee, it was just eyewash. It never met,” said Dilip Ghosh, state BJP president.
In Garalgacha gram panchayat in Hooghly district, the village head, Manoj Singh, was removed after it was found that he listed his own phone number against the named of at least 100 beneficiaries, out of a total list of 166. His wife’s name was also on the list.
The matter even went up to the High Court after a PIL was filed and a CAG audit was ordered into the relief operations. The TMC opposed this.
The BJP, which has set itself the target of winning at least 200 of the 294 seats in the assembly, has made Amphan relief an issue because it directly impacts the people in the Sunderbans and coastal areas where the party did not do well in 2019. The Sunderbans have a population of more than 4.5 million.
Top BJP leaders including Union home minister Amit Shah, defence minister Rajnath Singh and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath have already campaigned on various areas and islands in the Sunderbans including Gosaba and Kakdwip.
“Modiji had sent thousands of crores for Amphan relief. Did you see any of it? ‘Bhatija’ (Mamata’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee) and his associates siphoned off the funds without any of it coming to you. But you don’t worry. Once we come to power, we will form an SIT and probe all the discrepancies of these funds. None will be spared,” Shah said in a public meeting at Gosaba on March 23.
But Mamata Banerjee and the TMC have fought back. On Tuesday, on the last day of the campaign before the Sunderbans go into polls on Thursday, TMC MP Abhishek Banerjee held four rallies in four constituencies.
“It was an issue at one point but not anymore. The government took action whenever such allegations surfaced and the guilty were punished by Mamata Banerjee. Some people are yet to receive the compensation but this is not because of corruption but because there were some errors in the documents they submitted, such as bank account numbers. People are on our side and the BJP won’t be able to find any ground by raising such allegations,” said Debes Mondol, TMC candidate from Hingalganj in North 24 Parganas, which goes into polls in the fifth phase.
With elections round the corner, hapless villagers are now looking forward to the new government. Both the TMC and the BJP have promised much in their manifestos.
The BJP has promised to spend ₹6500 crore in the cyclone-affected areas, an AIIMs-like hospital and development of a tourist circuit. The TMC has promised financial assistance to widows. This comes as good news for thousands of women who have lost their husbands in tiger attacks in the Sunderbans over the years.
“We have to remember that even though the BJP is relying on the anger of the people and the anti-incumbency factor, it still lacks the ground level infrastructure. The TMC is on the backfoot because of allegations of corruption and nepotism, but it has its men on the ground. So it will be a tough fight in the Sunderbans,” said Amal Mukhopadhyay, political commentator and the former principal of Presidency College.