Cyclone Amphan is simply the biggest natural disaster seen in this lifetime for many. It is believed to be the most devastating cyclone to hit Bengal since 1737, almost 300 years ago and well before the Battle of Plassey. The damage the cyclone inflicted upon Kolkata has been well recorded. Human lives have been lost and families and communities disrupted. Property has been destroyed. Key infrastructure has been crippled. Tall, proud trees, decades or even a century old, have been uprooted brutally.
While each death is regrettable, the government had managed to evacuate 800,000 people at short notice. This ensured that the Cyclone Amphan death toll was limited. Authorities and disaster response teams are working 24/7 to reach, with relief supplies, people who are marooned. It's been a gruelling week.
While Kolkata has got a little national media attention, the situation is more serious in the rural hinterland of Bengal. Cyclone Amphan has affected 60 per cent of the state's population. 18 of Bengal's 23 districts have been jolted, and the blow to agricultural Bengal has been incalculable. Assets of farming communities, whether humble houses or harvested crops, nurtured over months of back-breaking labour, have been reduced to nothing. The tragedy is beyond description.
A high tide results in coastal areas being flooded by saline water. This makes fertile, cultivable land unsuitable for cropping. When saline water overruns lakes and ponds, it chokes animal and aquatic life (like fish) that seeks potable water. Initial assessments tell us over a million hectares of farmland and 58,000 hectares of fisheries have been inundated by saline water. In the Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage site, 17,800 hectares of mangrove forests have suffered damage. Four million people depend on the Sundarbans for their livelihood - whether in agriculture, fishing, wildlife tourism or honey collection. They now contemplate a troubled future.
District after district paints a familiar and tragic pattern. Let me give you a few examples:
- North 24 Parganas: About 190,000 hectares of agricultural land flooded
- South 24 Parganas: Agricultural damage estimated at Rs 2,500 crore
- East Medinipur: Some 47,000 hectares of farmland destroyed
- Hooghly: 810 of 857 hectares of land set aside for grain cultivation now unusable
- Nadia: Crops across 150,000 hectares damaged
- Murshidabad: Destruction stretching to 175,000 hectares of agricultural land, valued at Rs 1,140 crore
- East Burdwan: A massive 42,000 hectares of bodo paddy land destroyed with a financial implication of almost Rs 400 crore
And this is not just an issue for Bengal, it has consequences for national food security. Bengal produces 20 per cent of India's rice and a third of its potato crop.
As can be imagined, the rebuilding of Bengal will be a monumental exercise. Immediately following the cyclone, the Trinamool Congress government set up task forces at the state level and for individual districts to implement and monitor relief and rehabilitation ops. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee asked officials to send district-wise reports on agricultural losses. This was priority.
One million homes were destroyed or severely damaged by the cyclone. Important steps have begun to be taken. The Bengal government is sending Rs 20,000 to each affected family. A sum of Rs 5,000 is being sent to each betel leaf farm that has been damaged. Scientists and researchers have developed varieties of rice that can be grown in salt water. Arrangements are being made to distribute such seeds. Salt water fish that can thrive in ponds inundated by salt water are being pushed.
As per the National Disaster Management Plan 2016, Cyclone Amphan is fit to be classified as an L3 category disaster: "A catastrophic situation or a very large-scale disaster that overwhelms state or district authorities". This classification was accorded to the Kerala floods of 2018. But till date, the central government has not classified Cyclone Amphan as an L3 category event.
An L3 category classification means the disaster is judged big enough to have overwhelmed state and district authorities and their financial resources, including the State Disaster Relief Fund. It obligates the centre to support the state. In the absence of an L3 classification, the central government is under no compulsion to help. It is quizzical that the European Union has pledged an initial €500,000 to assist India in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan - but the centre has offered Bengal only Rs 1,000 crore so far.
I may add here that Bengal has not received a rupee in assistance for the damage done by Cyclone Bulbul in 2019. Over 200,000 hectares of farmland was wrecked and the Mamata Banerjee government used its own resources to help affected farmers and their families. There is also the issue of the Rs 53,000 crore the centre owes Bengal under various heads - central schemes, devolution of funds, GST, and so on.
Why is the centre holding back? Has the BJP taken the cynical view that it is okay for Bengal to suffer for the next one year so as to help the party with its 2021 assembly election campaign? I hope I'm wrong.
Correction: An earlier headline for this article wrongly stated that the European Union gave more financial assistance to Bengal than the central government.
(Derek O'Brien, MP, leads the Trinamool Congress in the Rajya Sabha)
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