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Published on: June 3, 2020, 10:03 p.m.
West Bengal suffers a double whammy
  • Villagers rebuild mud embankments at the Sundarbans

By Sajal Bose. Deputy Editor, Business India

Super cyclone Amphan smashed Kolkata and several districts of West Bengal, especially North and South 24 Parganas as well as East Midnapur, with them still to recover from its fury.

The cyclone made landfall at 2.30pm over Sagar Island, a part of Sundarbans on 20 May at a howling wind speed of 185 Kmph and moved towards Kolkata and Howrah after wrecking Haldia. When it passed through Kolkata with torrential rain at 6pm, the Alipore weather office recorded wind speed at 133 kmph.

“The impact of Amphan on the state has been worse than the coronavirus pandemic. We have to rebuild everything,” says West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. The visibly worried Banerjee was monitoring the Amphan cyclone from a disaster management control room at Nabanna – the State Secretariat of West Bengal.

Amphan killed 98 people in Bengal and most of the fatalities were due to electrocution or collapse of homes. The mass evacuation of 500,000 people from coastal areas initiated by the state government before the storm hit, has minimised the death toll. Over 60 million people have been affected. Several were shifted to local schools. Countless trees and electricity poles have been uprooted causing power outages in the city as well as rural areas. Roads along with small bridges and culverts are damaged. Over 1.1 lakh school buildings and 2,000 health centres are wrecked. Some 10.5 lakh hectares of farmland and about one-lakh betel leaf farms are affected. Embankments were breached in rural and coastal areas leading to flooding of cropland.

The state announced Rs2-Rs2.5 lakh for the family members of each deceased. It will also release Rs20,000 each for 10 lakh damaged dwellings. The extent of damage estimated by the West Bengal government due to the cyclone is estimated around Rs1 lakh crore. The National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) has been deployed to help the local administration. The army too has joined in for three days after the cyclone to deal with the emergency situation.

Seeing the catastrophic disaster due to cyclone, President Ram Nath Kovind called Mamata Banerjee and expressed his emotions: “Tears came to my eyes seeing the situation of large-scale loss of life and property.” He assured all support to the chief minister.

The chief minister requested the prime minister visit the affected areas so that he could understand what the cyclone has done. Banerjee’s appeal was a significant deviation from her normal belligerence towards the Centre because of its criticism of Bengal’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wasted no time and agreed to visit Bengal. He also set aside the political rivalry with Banerjee to fight Bengal’s twin crisis together.

Modi said the Centre will stand shoulder to shoulder with Bengal and announced an immediate advance of Rs1,000 crore after an aerial survey of the most affected areas with the chief minister. He also announced an ex-gratia of Rs2 lakh to the families of each of those killed and Rs50,000 for injured. Modi promised to help the state to get back on its feet. He also praised Banerjee in dealing with disaster while also handling the Coronavirus pandemic.

“Dealing with Covid-19 requires social distancing whereas battling the Amphan cyclone requires people to move to safer areas. Despite these conditions, Bengal is fighting well under the leadership of Mamataji,” the prime minister said. This is the first time after the lockdown that Modi has visited any state. But critics think the PM’s response to Bengal is also to gain political mileage keeping in mind next year’s state election. After Bengal, Modi flew to Odisha to take stock of the situation there. He announced Rs500 crore as relief for Odisha.  

CPIM general secretary Sitaram Yechury demanded that the Centre should declare this a national disaster. Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, leader of Congress in Lok Sabha, echoed Yechury. Mamata Banerjee said it is more than a national disaster. Her government released Rs6,250 crore for relief and restoration works.

Sundarbans, which bears the brunt of any cyclone forms on the Bay of Bengal, is still recovering from the devastation of Cyclone Aila which hit a decade ago. Aila had wind speeds of 115 kmph. But Amphan was much more destructive. “Amphan blew away everything from the people of the islands. The storm flattened houses and forced many families to move to nearby schools for shelter. But many preferred to stay in the open due to fear of coronavirus infections in school,” says Rajesh Kumar Show, who has run Backpackers’ Eco Village in Satjelia Island since 2012.

 

The clay embankments of the river were breached in the cyclone with high tide leaving a number of villages flooded as water seeped through the breaches into settlements. The saline water entered the farmland and ruined crops. This will affect paddy cultivation for the next few years. “Cosmetic changes in Sundarbans will not help. Rather it needs sustainable change for the benefit of the people. That needs political willingness,” explains Rajesh. He believes that mangrove trees and concrete embankments are the best solution for the region. “The impact of cyclone in our eco-village was less because we had planted 2,000 saplings five years back, which have now grown into a small forest that protects soil erosion.”

The storm also ravaged the industrial town Haldia. The uprooted electricity poles left the town without electricity and water for three days hampering production at Indian Oil's refinery. Several industrial units at the port town were facing problems due to severe damage to infrastructure.

Nature’s fury followed by the government’s failure to restore the normalcy even four days after the cyclone. For the most part, Bengal, including Kolkata and Howrah, remained dark due to power outages. That led to a water crisis across Kolkata and Howrah. Dialysis and heart patients have suffered the most.

Uprooted trees have emerged as a hurdle in bringing life back to normal. Firad Hakim, state minister and administrator of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) blamed Kolkata’s only power utility company CESC. “I have told CESC to restore the power immediately,” says Hakim. But CESC officials stated that fallen trees blocked access and prevented them from repairing snapped cables. Even after the army cleared trees, CESC took time to resume supply citing shortage of manpower due to lockdown.

Angry residents hit the roads in various parts of the city. As public anger mounted, a visibly upset Mamata Banerjee said, “CESC is not under our utilities. They have been here on the basis of a Central law since the CPM era. Right now, there is no alternative.” Later she visited CESC headquarters and requested officials to act fast as well as to arrange for generators. Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury of Congress questioned the CESC’s monopoly. “Why is there no other company?” he asked.

Similarly unstable phone and Internet lines affected a large section of people working from home during the lockdown. Hathway broadband subscribers faced the heat of service inefficiency. The challenge for the West Bengal government is to now extract funds from the Centre to rehabilitate the cyclone-affected and also keep the corona virus surge under control.

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