A week since Amphan: How the super-cyclone swept off the living conditions in West Bengal

A week since Amphan: How the super-cyclone swept off the living conditions in West Bengal

The Home Department of West Bengal State Government tweeted, “Drinking water and drainage infrastructure getting restored fast. PHE asked to supply water pouches in gap pockets, generators being hired where necessary. More than a hundred teams from multiple departments and bodies working from cutting off fallen trees which is the key to restoration of power in localities.”

Ironically enough, a week after the devastating super-cyclone Amphan hit the State of West Bengal, taking the lives of 85 people, tearing down hundreds of roofs, damaging hundreds of buildings, vandalising the houses and lives of over 15 million people, overturning and thrashing vehicles, pulling down thousands of trees and electric poles and communication lines, the common man’s daily life has still not been restored back to normal. 

This super-cyclone took away the lives of so many in unimaginable ways. A wall collapsed on a woman and her son in South Kolkata; a 13-year-old girl died in Howrah district after a portion of the house broke off, people died of electrocution, etc.  What didn’t help was the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the question which has been stirring the minds of many is regarding the inefficiency of the stakeholders who have subsequently failed to bring normalcy back. Who is to be blamed here; the government officials or the reluctant display of management?

On Saturday, after the request from the State Government, the Indian Army was deployed for damage control and restoration work in and around the State capital, Kolkata. “Based on the request from the Government of West Bengal, the Indian Army has provided five columns to assist the Kolkata City Civil Administration in the aftermath of cyclone Amphan” stated the Army.

The Home Department of the State Government also asked the railways to lend a hand in putting together the damaged infrastructure and bringing back the living conditions of all citizens as it was prior to the wrath of the cyclone.

“We’re facing four challenges at a time,” said CM Mamata Banerjee, who also claimed to have never seen such a devastating condition of the State before. COVID-19, lockdown, multiple issues regarding the migrant workers and the super cyclone are the daunting challenges that the State is faced with.

Earlier, 36 teams of National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) were sent, according to the Home Affairs Ministry. The Odisha government sent a team of 500, including 300 fire-fighters and 10 ODRAF teams to fasten the pace of restoration work. Yet, there was no electricity, no clean water, no network for a whole week in multiple places across the city and suburbs. But something common everywhere was the ample amount of scenes of fallen trees entangled with wires, blocking streets, logging water and increasing distress of many.

The problems which caused and are still causing massive issues to the citizens were very basic to the core – mismanagement and lack of communication. After the storm ended, the whole city blacked out. Even today, after seven long days, there are multiple places in various parts of the State which are yet to restore electricity.

People are still living in pitch darkness and pathetic conditions; there is a massive lack of fresh water supply, people are not able to pump water from reservoirs because of no electricity and common tap water provided by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) available at every locality isn’t serving the purpose quite well.

The drainage systems have been taking a toll due to water clogging, resulting in deaths due to electrocution and the failure in the cellular network and the internet has only added to the woes.

Sneha Das, a 21-year-old resident of Kidderpore area in Kolkata, expressed her anguish at the situation.

“Some people of our locality went to the councillor’s house only to get back negative responses from him,” she said before mentioning an incident where an elderly woman in her locality had to be rushed to the hospital due to running out of oxygen supply during the power cut.

Samadrito Sanyal, 23, a resident of Santragachi in Howrah District, stated how the local people themselves had to arrange for workers willing to clear the trees. Repeated phone calls to power utilities like Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation (CESC) and WBSEDCL as well as local administration and police stations have gone unanswered, and as a result, protests erupted in different parts of the State.

From Behala and Tollygunge in South Kolkata to Belgharia in North, people ended up coming out in the streets, blocking roads with utensils and empty buckets, complaining about the inefficient strategies of the government and totally breaking the social distancing norms amidst the rising risk of COVID-19 pandemic.

The conditions of the rural areas are far worse. The largest mangrove forest of the world, Sundarbans have been the victim of the crushing cyclone from ground zero level. State of Sundarbans Affairs Minister Manturam Pakhira said that Sundarbans is amongst the worst-affected areas and the damage caused amounts to thousands of crores. Hundreds of people have lost their homes, cattle, possessions along with the livelihood, which was already at stake due to the pandemic. The place will have to be rebuilt from scratch.

The embankments along the Sundarbans delta which also happened to be a UNESCO world heritage site have been totally destroyed. “In months to come, all of us will witness huge migration from the Sundarbans region. Whatever was rebuilt after the 2009 cyclone Aila have been lost due to cyclone Amphan,” Sugata Hazra, Director, School of Oceanographic Sciences at Jadavpur University, told PTI.

A natural calamity was the last thing the region needed amid the pandemic crisis. The operations conducted to handle the aftermath were not as coherent as promised. Even after repeated updates from the weather department, the lack of efficiency of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) was evident. The aftermath of the cyclone was indeed unforeseen, but it came to the notice of the stakeholders days before its occurrence. Why then did the State lack in curbing the shortage of workforce? Why was the Army and Fire & Safety Department not approached beforehand? Was the aftermath of a super-cyclone that difficult to comprehend? The Army came to force on Saturday; hours after the cyclone had ransacked the State.

“This is not the time to do politics,” said Mamata Banerjee, but the political slugfest between BJP and TMC did not leave a single chance to lash out. Numerous places reported fights between the two parties where the blame-game was conducted rapidly instead of relief work. CESC workers were harassed in multiple locations.

Abdul Mannar, the Indian National Congress leader, came down on the road of Seoraphuli in Hooghly district to protest against CESC’s faulty restoration work to bring back power supply. Sayantan Bose, a 27-year-old engineer and resident of Dum Dum area in North Kolkata said, “The transparent lack of harmony amongst political faces on both State and central level resulted in the failed comprehension of the colossal damage caused by the cyclone; hence the coping mechanism fell apart too.”

But was the shortage in the workforce the only cause behind the drastic delay in relief works? Or should the lack of coordination in different sectors equally be held accountable? The CESC workers could not have started their job in restoring electricity unless KMC cleaned the road blockages. The road blockages due to massive trees lying dead did not get swept off in time due to less number in workforce. Nilanjan Mukherjee, a resident of Behala (one of the worst affected areas in South Kolkata), said, “The police should’ve accompanied CESC workers to avoid local brawls. Keeping the on-going COVID-19 crisis in mind, the government should have kept reserved personnel ready.”

In the end, all the restoration work was to be handled by the government, which failed to prepare itself before-hand. “The lack of governance was perfectly escaped by making the CESC vs KMC debate a scapegoat of the situation which in the long run, affected the common man in abundance” he added. 

The whole aftermath of this super-cyclone depended on the competence of the State leadership, her team, the State Governor and even the Prime Minister. While the State still strives on coping up with the wrath of Amphan, predictions have already started regarding the possibility of another storm headed towards West Bengal.

The disaster has unofficially lifted the lockdown enforced due to the coronavirus as the concept of social distancing goes for a toss as another crisis on the contagious disease front looms over the State that’s still reeling due to Amphan.

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