Jharkhali (Sundarbans): Days after the devastating Cyclone Amphan hit the Sundarbans, the UNESCO World Heritage Site can shock you, literally.
On the way to Jharkhali in the South 24 Parganas district, about 130 km from Kolkata, hundreds of electricity poles remain lying on roads, or dangerously swaying over people driving or walking down the roads. This road passes through at least three police station areas — Kolkata Leather Complex (KLC), Bhangar and Basanti.
In other areas of the district, paddy and maize crops, and some roads too, can be seen submerged, tin and thatched roofs blown apart, and carcasses floating in water.
The villages in Jharkhali aren’t new to cyclone fury, having braved Aila, Fani and Bulbul in the last decade — but Amphan was “the scariest” of them all, the local residents said.
They are, however, looking to rebuild whatever they can with no government support reaching them.
Sanjay Mridha, who lives in Laskarpur, one of the hamlets in Jharkhali, said, “We help ourselves. Villagers are at home now due to the lockdown. We cleared trees and repaired the breached embankments on our own.”
While putting up sandbags, Mridha said, “Nobody knows when the next cyclone will hit us. We cannot wait for administrative help to reach us.”
While villagers in these areas are clearing the hundreds of trees that were uprooted, they aren’t touching the electricity posts, waiting for government intervention.
Abdul Gaffar, a contractor with the West Bengal Electricity Board, said, “We are working for almost 16 to 18 hours every day. But this is unmanageable. My team has four men. After a survey, we found that at least 750 posts were uprooted in Bhangar area and around 600 in KLC area.”
He added, “Over two dozen transformers either exploded or tripped. We were asked by the department to first restore the government buildings. So today, we resorted to Bhangar thana and the BDO (Block Development Officer)’s office,” Gaffar told ThePrint Saturday.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has admitted that she doesn’t have adequate force, though she claimed that at least 1,000 disaster management teams are working across districts to restore normalcy.
While ThePrint couldn’t see government teams in and around these villages when it visited the area over the weekend, the CM said in a statement Monday that personnel have been deployed in the affected areas for rescue and relief work.
Thanking those working on the front lines of the rescue and relief operations, Banerjee said over 2 lakh personnel from power department, NDRF, SDRF, irrigation and agriculture have been pressed into action to restore services across the affected areas.
North and South 24 Parganas, the two districts that house the ecologically vital Sundarbans, have faced the maximum brunt of Amphan.
‘Scariest’ Amphan amid Covid-19 threat
On the impact of Cyclone Amphan on 20 May, Lakshman Swarnakar, a 52-year-old resident of Sardarpara (in Jharkhali) said, “We survived Aila (2009) though it wreaked havoc. But Amphan was different. We had thought that Amphan would be just another cyclone with a higher wind speed.”
Swarnakar said the wind speed after 4 pm “made us feel that we were in for trouble as it was the scariest storm we had ever experienced”.
“Water level was rising and huge tidal waves were gushing in. At least 100 of us rushed towards the embankments. These are temporary embankments, and we put more sandbags to make it stronger. The dikes were shaking. We again put whatever sandbags we were left with. All villagers left their houses and ran towards pucca road that leads to the cyclone centre,” he said.
The cyclone centres are generally two to three-storey buildings with three to four huge dormitories and hall-like structures, common toilets and a big kitchen for all. The villagers take refuge here for a couple of days or more depending on the intensity of the disaster.
In 14 vulnerable blocks of South 24 Parganas district, there are at least 150 such shelters.
This time, the villagers made their way to the shelters amid another the threat — Covid-19. Social distancing wasn’t an option.
Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after conducting an aerial survey of the cyclone-hit areas of South and North 24 Parganas, said so. “Bengal had to face a two-way challenge. On one side we are asking people to stay home and on the other we are driving them out of their home to save lives from Amphan. This was a peculiar situation,” he said last week.
However, this part of the district still remains a Covid-free zone, and residents can be seen moving around without masks.
Little relief from govt, impact on fishermen
Hours after Cyclone Amphan left a massive trail of devastation, CM Mamata Banerjee said she was “shocked” to see the destruction as early estimates pegged the damage to be around Rs 1 lakh crore.
While she expressed her helplessness over handling such a cyclone in the time of Covid-19, she later urged people to be “patient”. Banerjee has announced schemes to rebuild damaged structures, distribution of ration and food grains, while PM Modi has sanctioned an advance assistance of Rs 1,000 crore for disaster relief.
Meanwhile, even as residents of Kolkata have been protesting against the government’s “inaction” on providing cyclone relief, the villages clearly bear signs of administrative apathy.
While the four cyclones in the last decade haven’t stopped fishermen in the area from coexisting with the sea, their lives have been badly affected this time.
“After Cyclone Aila in 2009, we had to live in the flooded village for almost a month. Life revolved around the low tides and as water levels receded life limped back to normal. We are at the mercy of nature… Without electricity, the submersible pumps will not work,” said Sanjoy Mridha.
The cropland where the fishermen cultivated boro paddy is now flooded, turning into fish ponds.
“Ten bighas of cropland have totally submerged. The water has not receded much even after low tide. Our ‘dhan jami’ (paddy field) has now become a fish pond,” villager Dilip Haoladar said, as he spread a fishnet across his paddy field.
In Sardarpara, where most depend on the mangrove forest produce and tourism, resident Sanat Sarnakar said, “The ecology has been completely damaged. We saw carcasses floating in the waters, and many animals died. There was a rescued tiger here at the Jharkhali tiger rescue centre. We heard that it got killed. Amphan was scarier and uglier than Aila.”
In the aftermath of Cyclone Aila in 2009, the erstwhile Left Front government had claimed to have spent around Rs 165 crore in constructing temporary dikes at 800 points.
These were completely washed away along the 895-km stretch of the 3,500-km embankment in the area later, said a senior official who was associated with the West Bengal irrigation department during Aila.
Now, according to the department’s annual report 2018-19, it has undertaken a number of projects to ensure systematic resuscitation of drainage channels complemented by structural improvements in supporting infrastructure in the 24 Parganas districts.
It has also undertaken a Rs 48-crore project to raise and strengthen a cluster of embankments in the area. The project is supposed to be completed by the end of this year.
West Bengal Forest Minister Rajib Banerjee, who was formerly an irrigation minister, told ThePrint, “During my tenure, we had built around 108 km of concrete embankments. Of the thousand-odd kilometres stretch, it is mostly temporary embankments and I was hearing that at least 200 km was damaged. It is very difficult to build embankments in the Sundarban area as work can only be done for four months because of the adverse natural conditions.”
Banerjee said he has taken up a project for mangrove plantation. “We are yet to ascertain the extent of damage, and it will take seven days’ time to get a final assessment. But we have taken up a project of planting at least 3 crore of mangroves on war footing in the region,” he added.
Amid chaos and protests in Kolkata and its suburbs over the government’s failure to quickly restore essentials like electricity and water supply, the government’s challenges persist in the Sundarbans.
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