New Delhi: The Rs 1,000 crore aid pledged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi could be the proverbial drop in the ocean for cyclone-ravaged Bengal, which lies like a prostate, disemboweled Gulliver after the devastating Amphan Cyclone left nearly 100 dead and thousands homeless.
Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee estimated that her state would need a whopping Rs 100,000 crore to rebuild its economy—enough to create eight highways—but did not say how she will garner the amount. She admitted her coffers were drying up following a Rs 1,000 crore expenditure for people impacted by the deadly coronavirus.
Banerjee told reporters that she wanted the team from the Centre, which will assess the extent of the damage, to visit the state quickly, else the damage and costs will multiply beyond control. “I hope they come soon,” said Banerjee.
Senior functionaries of Banerjee’s ruling Trinamool Congress said they fear the Central aid could be delayed because of bitter relations between the state and Centre’s ruling NDA government. At the same time, there are fears in Delhi that if not properly monitored, funds could be misutilised and misrepresented by the TMC as its own cash for distribution to those affected to build the party’s image for the forthcoming polls in the state in 2021. There have been several instances of food grains sent by the Centre being repackaged as TMC relief to those affected by the deadly virus. At many places, TMC leaders were found hoarding Central relief for resale in local markets.
Fears of Central funds filling up the coffers of political parties are not totally unfounded in Bengal. In 2009, Banerjee, then Railway Minister, had asked the then PM Manmohan Singh not to provide Rs 1,000 crore to West Bengal for relief work after havoc wreaked by Cyclone Aila. Banerjee had justified her decision by saying she feared that the Central assistance would be diverted to the cadres of the ruling CPM. In May, 2019, Banerjee had rejected Central aid for cyclone, even going to the extent of saying she did not recognise Narendra Modi as her PM.
Some of her supporters even took to social media to blame English newspapers and English television news channels for not putting Bengal in the top news. The criticism died after PM Modi made his visit and offered aid, and many of the critics were silenced after being told news gathering exercises were difficult in Bengal that remained locked out—like other states—because of the coronavirus epidemic. “Editors take decisions as to what should be a headline or not. Bulk of the editors of all top English newspapers are all Bengalis, don’t her supporters know that? They should ask the editors why they didn’t put the cyclone news as a banner headline. Bengal must also realise that over the years, their CM has plugged an agenda of hatred against Delhi (read PM Modi) by making inflammatory and derogatory statements. You need to display growth to keep your state uppermost in peoples’ mind. Why cry wolf now?” asked a veteran journalist, who once edited some of India’s finest publications. The journalist, speaking on conditions of anonymity, said in recent times, the image of the Bengal CM had taken a severe beating.
The opposition political parties in Bengal have often blamed the TMC for selectively funding those close to the ruling party, leaving the rest in lurch.
Stuck in the middle of the slugfest between the state and the Centre are millions who live in one of the most vulnerable parts of the world prone to storm-surge flooding. Bengal, which has a good track record of evacuations and bringing vulnerable residents to storm shelters, badly faltered this time because its efforts were complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. Many were fearful of going to confined places.
The state machinery was rattled by the storm that caused flooding, blew away roofs, uprooted trees and ripped up power lines, killing men, women, birds and animals. PM Modi, who along with CM Banerjee, was flown over the impacted area, surveying vast tracts of land under water. In Kolkata, state government officials used drones to assess the damage. The total death toll is expected to rise as communications are restored and authorities reach villages cut off by blocked roads, particularly in the low-lying Sundarbans delta, home to four million people and thick mangrove forests that are a critical habitat of tigers. There were unconfirmed reports of deaths of a number of tigers. In Sundarban’s Gosaba, a town close to the river delta that juts into the sea, the storm destroyed over 40,000 homes, rendering thousands homeless. The cyclone damaged large tracts of embankments, causing 13 breaches that led to salty water inundating swathes of land. “We are reorganising ourselves. Once we regroup and survive, we will enter the forests to check the extent of damage,” Gunomoy Mondal, an electrician, said in a brief telephonic conversation from Canning, the gateway to the Sundarbans.
Haldia, home to Bengal’s petrochemical complex and a port, saw its huge green belt devastated by the storm. “Once, this green belt was our pride, now I shudder when I look at all the uprooted trees. Can God be so cruel?” remarked Ashim Chatterjee, a senior functionary of the Kolkata Port Trust. Haldia town, till date, remains without power and water supply. “Everyone is working overtime but there is just not enough manpower to set these things from scratch.”
There are other fears. In parts of South 24 Parganas, many fear that without temporary shelters thousands of homeless would be completely exposed to monsoon rains that will arrive in a few weeks.
The crisis, claimed many, could also be compounded by a coronavirus outbreak as many returning migrant workers had been quarantined at home but are now forced to mix with the rest of the population. “We just do not know the scale of disaster that awaits Bengal,” said Bablu Majhi, a resident of Diamond Harbour.
Close to the jute mills of Titagarh in North 24 Parganas, locals fought pitched battles with bricks and sticks with the police after going without water for over 36 hours. “We cannot wait for a long time for power and water to come back. The administration is handicapped and does not have the required manpower,” an irate resident from Baranagar said in a telephonic interview.
Kolkata lost an estimated 10,000 trees—including the iconic, 270 year-old Great Banyan Tree in Shibpur—which were all brought down during the storm that lasted several hours and caused extensive flooding. The city, home to almost 15 million people, bore the brunt of the cyclone which tore roofs off buildings, smashed windows, pulled down trees and pylons and overturned cars. Most of the fatalities were caused by falling trees or electrocution. According to reports reaching Delhi, half of the city was still without power and water, in a state of shock. “There is an acute shortage of manpower due to coronavirus-related restrictions,” said Kolkata’s Deputy Mayor Atin Ghosh.
In parts of South Kolkata, harassed residents put up roadblocks after they were told to cut trees to make way for ambulances and relief vans. “We do not know how to cut trees. No one is responding to our repeated calls,” said a harassed resident of Santoshpur close to the Jadavpur University. Two districts of the city had been completely devastated and had to be rebuilt from scratch.
Videos on social media showed uprooted trees blocking roads and water cascading down the stairs of condominium apartments. The runway of Kolkata’s airport was completely underwater and looked like a long pond.
Officials of the control room set up in Kolkata to monitor the impact said with communications disrupted the state government was in the dark about the extent of the damage. “Regular and mobile phone networks have been dysfunctional in the coastal areas. There is no electricity across vast regions. We do not have any information about those cut-off areas where hundreds of villages are located. Many villages have been reduced to rubble,” said an official.
In neighbouring Bangladesh, some 1,100 km of road, 200 bridges and 150 km of dams in coastal districts had been damaged, crops spread over 176,000 hectares destroyed. Officials were working overtime to restore power to some 10 million people.
The need of the hour is cash, which, in turn, will guarantee relief. But sourcing it will be an insurmountable task for Bengal.