It has been more than 20 days since cyclone Amphan struck his village, Khanpukur, in the Hasnabad gram panchayat of coastal North 24 Parganas. Yet, Sanjay Gayen has to wade through waist deep water to make his way to the village community kitchen. The river embankment of the Dasha river was breached in two spots during the cyclonic storm near Gayen’s village and those breaches are yet to be fully restored.
According to Gayen, “Around half of our village is still submerged. One of the breaches has been restored recently but the other one is yet to be reinstated. During high tide, the situation worsens as the river water overflows into the village.”
The situation in the neighbouring Patulikhanpur village is equally distressing. A substantial part of that village is still submerged. A large number of rural residents of these areas had to be shifted to shelters as their houses have been damaged or submerged. There are 11 such temporary camps in the area, each housing around 100 individuals. Many other villagers, who could not be accommodated in these shelters, have been forced to build temporary shelters along the village road and are staying there. Most of their houses remain inaccessible and submerged.
The West Bengal state government has compiled a comprehensive Amphan damage report and stated that the total loss is about `1 lakh crore. As per the state government’s estimates, about six crore people have been affected by Amphan and 87 people have died. Further, 8.5 lakh people had to be evacuated from the coastal regions of the state and two lakh people are staying in temporary shelters. The report states that the state government has spent around `27,000 crore for relief and rescue operations.
It also states that around 10 lakh houses have been damaged and 10.5 lakh hectares of farmland and 58,000 hectares of fisheries have been affected. Additionally, 1.1 lakh schools have been damaged other than ICDS centres. According to state estimates, the amount of this loss is around `24,000 crore. As many as 4.5 lakh electric poles have been damaged in addition to around 5000 power sub-stations. According to state irrigation officials, around 160 km of river embankments have been wiped out and around 4,710 km of village roads and 317 km of urban roads have been affected.
The immediate need is to provide relief and rehabilitation to the affected people. However, the government must also be looking into the question of livelihood. Due to largescale flooding of farmlands with saline water, there is an apprehension of an increase of soil salinity which would make agriculture difficult in these regions. There is also the massive loss sustained by the fisheries.
Kanti Gnaguly, former Minister, Sundarbans Development Department, Government of West Bengal, informed BE, “There is immediate need to start the process of dewatering. This refers to the process of pumping out saline water from farmlands in the Sundarbans to combat the issue of soil salinity.”
He added, “The government must look to regulate the fisheries. Since many of the fisheries breed saline water fishes, they make their own channels to flow in saline river water into their fisheries. We have noticed that most of the embankment breaches can be linked to these fishery channels. These channels or indigenous dams weaken river embankments.”
The government has also declared a relief package of `20,000 for people whose dwellings have been damaged. However, according to Nirapada Sardar, former Member of Legislative Assembly (2011-2016), Sandeshkhali, a region in North 24 Parganas that has been severely affected by the cyclone, “There are too many requisitions. I have no idea how the governmental authorities plan to scrutinise these requisitions. In this area, I have seen governmental authorities distribute some dry food items on the day after the cyclone and then, they again came after a few days with food grains. However, as most of the houses were submerged, villagers could not cook this food grains.”
The devastation caused by Amphan is being linked to the damage caused by Aila in 2009. However, according to veterans like Ganguly and Sardar, Aila was by far more devastating. Ganguly added, “During Aila, around 1000 km of river embankments were destroyed. This time round, it is only around 100 km of damaged embankments. The issue this time was the speed of the storm. Winds were blowing at around 180-190 km/hr which was much more than the wind speed during the Aila storm.”
After Aila, an amount `532 crore was sanctioned for concretisation of around 770 km of river embankments in vulnerable areas. According to Ganguly, “Around 70 km of that work was completed till 2011 and after that, only another 85 km has been concretised. Since this project was a collaborative one – with 75% finances being arranged by the central government and only 25% to be arranged by the state government, it should have been completed by now. Concretisation of embankments is needed to save the low-lying villages of Sundarbans from natural calamities like the Amphan. A pertinent step would be to ensure concrete roofs (in place of asbestos roofs) for dwellings being constructed under various governmental rural housing policies in this vulnerable region.”