10 June 2009

FYI for the Government of West Bengal: One high tide over, many more coming

I wrote this on Sunday in my diary, and wanted to post it the same day. I am hopelessly late, but here it is:

Today, the high tide will finish what Cyclone Aila left unfinished a fortnight ago.

About 900 km of the Sunderbans’ 3,500 km-long embankment was breached by Aila. The water that will surge through today will determine the fate of the people of Sunderban for the next couple of years. Saline water will make the land un-cultivable. More people will slip below the poverty line.

It would be expecting too much from the state government to have had some sort of preparation for the cyclone. (This document that I found after a very brief search says, “A simple frequency distribution of all observed cyclonic activities in the Bengal delta suggests that these events usually occur twice per annum: in late May and in early November.” It also adds that climate change will cause more storm-like surges in the Sunderban in the 21st century.)

But the high tide does not come all of a sudden. Between the cyclone and the high tide, villagers toiled all by themselves to re-build as much as they could. Thousands fled, but I cannot fathom the strength and courage of those who stayed and put brick on top of brick and hoped they could save their land. They ignored the plight of their own families and worked on the embankment for up to 12 hours a day on some chire (parched rice) and gud (jaggery).

The CM on his visit to the cyclone-hit villages requested people to sort this out on their own. And, if they did, he would pay them Rs 81 per day for work done on rebuilding the embankment. (It turns out they were paid not more than Rs 26 or so per day.)

Why was the army not called in to work on the embankment? How can villagers be left on their own to deal with a problem that is not local at all? Does the CPM government even realize the implications of Sunderban drowning?

Even after the high tide came and caused fresh misery, the army has still not been called in. There will be many high tides, and there is the monsoon yet to come in its full fury. In reaction, the government will do the same thing it has been doing over the years: nothing.

Forget Sunderban, uprooted trees are still lying on the main roads of Kolkata. The civic administration said it doesn’t have enough axes to cut the trees up. (Somebody should nominate these people for Lying Through Their Teeth award, or for The Best Excuses to Skip Work award.) For once, they may be telling the truth. The axes have all been sent to the suburbs for some cleaning up work.

Oh, and in the meantime, the mayor of Kolkata came up with an interesting idea. He was so touched with what the CM did for the cyclone-hit, that he nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. (This one gets me, and I am at a serious shortfall of words for this.)

I am amazed at this apathy. And I shiver when I realize that all it took to show us the government’s impotence is a cyclone that never really hit with all its force. It kind of swept past and ravaged south Bengal on its way out. But what if the eye of the cyclone was Kolkata?

At least, after we saw the state government’s relief efforts (?), we know that we are on our own. At least, we have places to run to, and buses, cars, trains, and planes to go there. Not so, for the people of Sunderban.

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