The roof is a patchwork of faded sarees. There are no windows anymore. And yet, Jelim Khan and Rashima Bibi are relieved. They still have a house — whatever is left of it.
“It’s better than jostling for space in a relief camp. These are corona times and I have two children. The panchayat has given us a plastic sheet but it will not cover our roof,” says Rahima.
Rattled by the Covid outbreak, and struggling to cope with the return of migrant workers in the middle of a lockdown, the Sundarbans woke up to Cyclone Amphan 10 days ago.
It’s still reeling from the fallout: uprooted trees, rows of damaged mud and concrete houses, ravaged fields and ponds with rotting leaves and dead fish. The power lines are still down, and a few tubewells are the only source of drinking water.
“In 2009, Cyclone Aila inundated our fields with saltwater from the Bay of Bengal, and reduced me to a daily wager. In November 2019, Cyclone Bulbul blew away our asbestos roof and windows. Now, these old sarees are all we have over our heads,” says Jelim, 35, a father of two in Baliara village on Moushuni Islands in the Sunderbans, 110 km from Kolkata.
Amphan made landfall in West Bengal on May 20 with a wind speed of 135 kmph and, across two days, led to 98 deaths, rendered over a crore homeless and uprooted about 4.5 lakh electricity poles.
It left a trail of devastation mainly across seven districts — the Sundarbans, in North and South 24 Parganas, was among the worst-hit regions. At least 98 died across the state and one crore became homeless. There was wide spread damage to property and 4.5 lakh electric poles were uprooted. In South 24 Parganas alone, 24 people died, 10 lakh houses collapsed and over 4 lakh farmers were affected.
The state government is setting up a fund of Rs 1,000 crore for relief and rehabilitation. And following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the state last week, the Centre has announced a package of Rs 1,000 crore more.
On Friday, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said the state has released a total of Rs 6,250 crore to be utlised by various government departments for reconstruction, with a portion to be deposited under different schemes in the bank accounts of victims.
But then, it’s not just Amphan. Of the seven districts, South 24 Parganas alone has 180 Covid cases, including six deaths. And in Jelim’s Baliara village, residents have started blocking returning migrants and visitors, even those arriving with relief. So much so, that the administration has made it mandatory for visitors to be escorted by officials.
“We have asked them to drop relief material at the jetty on the other side of the river. Our boats will bring it here. We don’t want people from Kolkata and other places to enter the village. Who knows whether they are carrying the virus or not,” says Narugopal Bakhra, a village representative on Moushuni Island.
A short walk from Jelim’s house, Sallauddin Shah (52) is waiting for his elder son Alamgir, a migrant worker stuck in Delhi, to return. “My younger son Jehangir was lucky to make it back from Kerala before the lockdown started. My sons left the state for work after Aila destroyed our fields. I lost 7 bighas of land,” he says.
“I have been told that I will get a job card and 100 days of work (under MNREGS). We don’t know when that will happen, but the money will be too little anyway,” says Jehangir Shah, 24, sitting inside the family’s home, its roof blown away too.
At the small concrete jetty nearby, local diesel boats bring in food, rice, vegetables and building material. But supply is dwindling and prices of bamboo and asbestos, to rebuild houses, have doubled. “Bamboo that used to cost Rs 150 is now Rs 500. Each 8×3 asbestos sheet cost Rs 530 earlier but is selling for Rs 650,” says Abhijit Maity, a local resident.
“We had no Internet or proper cellphone connection for a week. The lockdown and Covid have made it difficult,” says Suman Das, additional programme officer at the office of the Block Development Officer (BDO) in Namkhana near Moushuni.
“Relief material is being distributed through panchayats. We have sent plastic sheets and dry food. Work is on for assessing the damage… making lists of those who lost their homes, damage to agricultural fields and ponds, and animals,” says Das.
Official records show that 1,144 migrants have returned from other districts and 1,138 from various states. The inflow of migrants has increased manifold in the past week since special trains have started to bring them back from Kerala, Maharashtra, Delhi and other places in the country. Screening is done at Dwariknagar Rural hospital and Kakdwip super speciality hospitals.
“Now we have to handle streams of migrant labourers who are returning. Screening them and keeping them in local schools. Then after they are back we will have to arrange for a job card for them and get them work. We are doing what we can,” says Shibnath Koyal, junior engineer at the BDO office.
On the road from Namkhana to Kakdwip, about 10 km away, electric posts have been bent by the wind, and there’s a mash of wires on the ground.
“You are asking about hurdles? Covid, lockdown, Amphan and migrants coming by the hundreds… We have to provide relief to people, quarantine migrants, and somehow arrange for relief material and start reconstruction,” says Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO) Shouvik Chatterjee.
Next to his room is a hall where four young men are busy on phones. “That is the control room. Batches of migrants are coming, even at night, and we have to coordinate everything. It’s open 24 hours,” says Chatterjee.
About two kms from the office of the SDO at Kashinagar, a group of people gather in a local tea shop with papers in hand. The papers are self declaration forms of villagers who have lost or damaged their homes.
“During Bulbul many people did not get the money to rebuild their house. This time too we fear our names will be lost. So we have gathered here and waiting for our panchayat leaders and we will hand over these papers. Some people are getting relief but some people are not. It should be the same for all,” says Siddheshwar Mondol, a local farmer.
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