The Sundarbans evokes images of the Royal Bengal tiger, mangrove forests and mudflats that draw tourists both from within and outside the country. But for Komola Mridha, the deltaic region in southern West Bengal is more than just the “world’s only mangrove tiger land”.
“Everyone knows about our tigers, but not many know that there are people, too, living here,” complains this resident of Gosaba village, while attending to domestic chores in the mud-and-bamboo hut where she and her fisherman husband live.
Gosaba is among the archipelago’s 104 islands on the Indian side of the delta formed by the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. It was also one of the Sundarbans’ worst affected areas when Cyclone Aila struck in 2009. While the tropical cyclonic storm made landfall in the Sundarbans on May 23, locals admit to having ignored the warnings, thinking it was only a flood tide. When the winds became too strong, Pintu Mandal and hundred other men of Pakhirala Island, about 8 km from Gosaba, decided to show the cyclone their back — literally.
“We locked our arms together and formed a human chain, believing it would stop the flow of water. We stayed like that for about four hours. But once the water rose beyond 7-8 feet, we simply gave up,” recalls 36-year-old Mandal. Swades Jana, who is from Gosaba and operates a ferry service across the cluster of islands that make up Sunderbans, says that Aila’s impact lasted even after the waters had receded. “There was no agriculture for over three years, as the sea water had left the soil saline. Many of us had to, therefore, take up fishing,” he says.
Six years since Aila hit, the Sundarbans —described as the “saviour of Kolkata” for its mangroves that absorb much of the fury of storms — is now getting its first set of cyclone shelters. There are a total of 1,012 multipurpose cyclone shelters being built in vulnerable locations across all coastal states of India under a National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Programme (NCRMP). With a total investment of $1.7 billion — $1.3 billion from the World Bank and the rest contributed by the states concerned — the programme is being implemented in two phases.
While Odisha has already been covered under the first phase from 2011, NCRMP-2 involving West Bengal took off last year. The programme’s focus is on investing in risk mitigation ahead of disasters, as against efforts in the past directed mainly at relief and rehabilitation post any natural calamity.
The multipurpose cyclone shelters are mostly buildings constructed in school premises, where people can be safely moved in the event of disasters. While serving as schools or community centres in normal times, these are also provided with equipment such as first aid boxes, kitchen utensils, power saws, life buoys, foldable stretchers, search lights, solar lanterns and water filters that are to be of use when disaster strikes. In Odisha, the day-to-day management and maintenance of the shelters are with committees headed by the block development officers concerned along with community members and volunteers, trained on the use of the equipment.
Besides cyclone shelters, the NCRMP’s scope also extends to putting in place early warning and dissemination systems through community involvement, building saline embankments and undertaking underground cabling of electrical wires to prevent power outages in the eventuality of cyclones. Swapan Kumar Chatterjee, who teaches at the Pakhirala Free Primary School, is glad that the government is finally “thinking about us”. He was the person who led the locals in Pakhirala to take refuge in the school after the heroic human chain initiative by Mandal and other men gave way. “There was no room in the school then to sleep; we could only either sit or stand. Everyone lost their livestock, while managing to save only themselves. We not only need the cyclone shelters now coming up, but want even the existing school, government buildings and ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) centres to be upgraded to these,” he states.
As per government data, 69 cyclones of varying intensity have struck West Bengal since 1891, while numbering 98 in Odisha.
“NCRMP is the first disaster management project in India that focuses on risk mitigation through early warnings systems, safe shelters and improved coordination, enabling coastal states to respond better to
cyclones,” claims Saurabh Dani, Senior Disaster Risk Management Specialist with the World Bank, which has already committed $667.40 million for the first two phases of the programme.
NCRMP implementation in Odisha is
now five years old. The state has, in fact, invested in institutionalising disaster management right from the time of the 1999 Paradip “super cyclone” that claimed some 10,000 lives. “The sense of ownership of cyclone shelters at community level is very high in Odisha; so is their level of preparedness,” Dani points out.
West Bengal, by comparison, has only recently started investing in risk mitigation infrastructure. “There’s a lot they need to do in order to be better prepared. Also, constructing cyclone shelters in the Sundarbans is a huge challenge, given the difficulties of transport,” adds Dani. Ferries are the only means to move men and material between islands in the archipelago. Within the islands, the primary mode of transport is small motorised rickshaws.
One thing that has, nevertheless, changed for the better when it comes to disaster preparedness is the ability to predict. In the case of the 2013 Cyclone Phailin, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) was accurate in spotting the formation of a depression over the north Andaman Sea on the morning of October 8 and tracking its intensification into a deep depression and a very severe cyclonic storm the next day. It also predicted its movement northwest towards Odisha by October 12 night.
All this was enabled by technology — particularly state-of-the-art Doppler radars. As SC Sahu, direct of IMD’s Bhubaneswar meteorological centre notes: “The Doppler radars help in detecting extreme weather conditions, including any hydro-meteorological developments in the sea between 200 and 500 km. We also remain in touch with the state governments and pass on information immediately whenever we notice any depressions or deep depressions.” These early warning systems, in turn, provide adequate time for the governments to evacuate people in the coastal belts.
Such systems — including advanced satellite imagery or numerical models for tropical cyclone forecasts — were non-existent in 1999. At that time, the IMD could only issue general cyclone alerts across West Bengal, Odisha and northern Andhra Pradesh, without being able to pinpoint the location of the storm’s landfall.
But technology apart, the improved disaster preparedness of states – again totally lacking in 1999 — has also made a difference. Almost nine lakh people in Odisha and 1.3 lakh in Andhra Pradesh were evacuated within 48 hours of Cyclone Phailin striking through the help of military and paramilitary forces, restricting casualties to just over a dozen.
The multipurpose cyclone shelters and saline embankments under NCRMP will only enhance the capability to deal with storms of extreme or severe cyclonic categories.
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