Normalcy yet to return to Amphan-hit Bengal
While touring cyclone-ravaged areas on Friday, chief minister Mamata Banerjee herself warned party workers against politicising relief work and said the party would not support anyone found indulging in corruption in the public distribution system.Updated: Jun 08, 2020, 01:49 IST
It has been three weeks since Cyclone Amphan blew the tin roof off Alok Mondol’s mud hut and shattered the river-facing wall, allowing water from the Dutta river to surge through and inundate Uttar Rangabelia, a village on Gosaba Island in the Sunderbans delta of West Bengal.
But the 56-year-old fisherman said the government-mandated compensation has still not reached him.
Mondol lost his house in May 2009 when cyclone Aila had pummeled the island but claimed that he had not received any money to rebuild it. This time, he is more determined.
“Local political leaders say I have to part with Rs 5000 if I want to get Rs 20,000 from the state government. Only if I give them Rs 5000, they will register my name,” said Mondol, who earns a living by catching crabs and tiger-prawn seedlings from the river.
Roughly 125km away in Kakdwip, Animesh Das is battling the same problem.
“It all depends on the party. If the local MLA or MP know for sure that they will get votes from the village, the pace of relief work would increase. Else you will not even get proper relief leave aside development work. Our village is an example…the village now has one tube well while two are lying defunct,” said Das, a resident of Gobindarampur village.
Similar allegations have started being reported across south Bengal, which was worst hit by the cyclone on May 20. At Minakha and Deyganga in the North 24 Parganas district, villagers staged a protest last Friday alleging that they have not received any relief. In Hingalganj, women staged a protest outside the block development office and villagers shouted slogans that no relief had reached them.
While touring cyclone-ravaged areas on Friday, chief minister Mamata Banerjee herself warned party workers against politicising relief work and said the party would not support anyone found indulging in corruption in the public distribution system. “She said that the party must not get involved in the relief work – leaving in to the administration – and that the relief for Covid-19 lockdown and cyclone Amphan must reach all victims, supporters of all parties,” said a Lok Sabha member who did not want to be named.
The Opposition parties demanded more transparency in relief work. “The Centre should appoint an agency or a team who can monitor the relief,” said Dilip Ghosh, president of the Bengal unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The government dismissed the allegations as baseless. “It is the opposition who is raising such allegations. Local MLAs and MPs and the district administration including BDOs [block development officers] and SDOs [sub-divisional officers] are working on the ground to bring back normalcy,” said Javed Khan, state disaster management minister.
He added that the government was committed to investigate any complaint. “If anyone has any such grievance he can approach the district administration. He can also call up the helpline,” Khan said.
To be sure, not all villagers allege politicization of relief efforts. “I have already received Rs 20,000 in my account. The local panchayat leader said that I would get more money in the next few days as wage against the 100-days work scheme,” said Tapan Das, a villager of Hingalganj
The state claims Amphan, which hit four districts in south Bengal for around eight hours on May 20, caused damage worth roughly Rs 1.02 lakh crore – with the largest chunk of losses due to the destruction of 2.8 million houses.
The state announced a package of Rs 6,250 crore, over and above the Rs 1,000 crore package each announced by the state government and union government earlier.
“Five lakh villagers will receive Rs 28,000 in their bank account as wage of MGNREGA work. Many have already received. Money is also being given to around one lakh villagers who have lost their betel leaf cultivation, and around 30,000 people who have lost cattle and poultry birds,” said a top official of the state government on condition of anonymity.
The state allocated Rs 100 crore each for repair of roads, school buildings, and losses in fishery and horticulture. Rs 250 crore have been allotted for fixing and installing tube wells and around Rs 200 crore for repairing embankments. Around 160 km of river embankments and four km of sea dykes were damaged by the cyclone.
A key focus is the 4,200sq km Sunderbans mangrove forest, one third of which has been destroyed. “The state government has decided to plant around 50 million mangrove saplings in the Sunderban and another 3.5 millions saplings of other trees across the state,” said Rajib Banerjee of the state forest department.
The government is also transferring money to the accounts of nearly 8,000 fishermen who lost their boats. “Around 5,000 betel-leaf cultivators have got compensation in the eight blocks of Contai subdivision,” said S Bhattacharya, sub-divisional officer of Contai in East Midnapore district.
Life in some cyclone-hit villages is now limping back to normalcy but the damaged embankments present a threat. “Whenever the water level rises during the tide some water gushes in. The authorities have plugged the gaps but I don’t know till when they will hold,” said Bikash Mistri of Mollakhali village in the Sunderbans.
The chief minister had apprehended that during the spring tide, the water might inundate new areas. Mamata Banerjee had directed the district administration to evacuate people if need arises. “We are planning to evacuate around 20,000 villagers from the three blocks which have been hardest hit by cyclone Amphan – Kultali, Gosaba and Patharpratima,” said P Ulganathan, district magistrate of South 24 Parganas.
A pressing concern in the agriculture-dependent region is the increased salinity of the soil because of sea water. Villagers said they will have to wait at least for two to three years for the soil to turn fertile again.
“The only way to make the soil fertile again is to either allow the salt layer to go deep in the soil or wash it. That can only be done if you have access to huge amount of sweet water which is not available in the Sunderbans. Hence they wait for at least two to three monsoons (two to three years). The salt has to go at least a feet below so that the top soil can become fertile again,” said SK Pal, head of the agriculture chemistry and soil science section at Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswa Vidyalaya.
But large swathes of farmland are still under water. “Around 10% of the cyclone hit areas are still under waist deep water. This is hampering relief work too,” said a second top official on condition of anonymity.