Two months ago, Cyclone Amphan ripped through Eastern India and Bangladesh. West Bengal bore the brunt of the storm. Winds blowing at 130 km per hour destroyed nearly 30 lakh houses and damaged crops in 17 lakh hectares of land. At least 95 people lost their lives. Ten days later, the West Bengal government announced a relief package of Rs 6,250 crore — it released the first tranche on June 2. But in less than two weeks, the state government’s relief efforts were riddled with allegations of corruption and it had to face protests. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has defended her government and claimed that “almost 99 per cent beneficiaries got government relief for Amphan”. However, as an investigation by this paper has revealed, there were irregularities in preparing lists of beneficiaries, misappropriation of relief material, and nepotism and political favouritism at panchayat-level institutions in the disbursal of funds.
Helping people pick up the pieces after a natural disaster requires government intervention on multiple fronts — organising food, potable water and medical aid, rebuilding houses flattened by the cyclone, restoring livelihoods. With its human and financial resources already taxed by the coronavirus pandemic, West Bengal had its task out. The reasons for devising a foolproof system to reach relief material to the intended beneficiaries couldn’t have been more compelling. But the state government response to this challenge has left much to be desired. Bogus names have appeared in the lists of beneficiaries and people whose houses have withstood the ravages of the storm have received compensation, apparently because they had links with the politically powerful. As members of the party in power, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) cadre should have been at the forefront of rehabilitation efforts. Instead, going by the show cause notices issued by the party to its errant members, nearly 200 TMC activists, several of them panchayat functionaries, face charges of filing false claims. The alleged participation of members of the BJP and CPM in the corruption shows how deep the rot runs in West Bengal’s local-level bodies.
A number of studies, including reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have pointed out that the frequency of severe cyclonic storms — like Amphan — will increase in the Indian Ocean because of global warming. These studies have talked about building the resilience of people in the areas threatened by these events by securing their livelihoods. If its post-Amphan relief efforts are any indication, the West Bengal government has much to do on that front. The farmers in the state’s betel-vine belt, for instance, have not received the promised compensation for their damaged crops. Instead, those with political connections, including many who do not cultivate betel, have siphoned off money. Such corruption is worrying given that building climate resilience will require robust institutions at the grass roots level. Those guilty in the Amphan relief scam must be brought to book.