In Sunderbans, postmasters are gods

KOLKATA, 28 JUNE: Several residents of Kalitala, North 24-Parganas, have alleged that the postmaster of the Kalitala post office has been taking bribe to disburse money meant for Aila victims. He has also been accused of withholding NREGA wages.
The Kalitala post master, Mr Ramen Mandol, allegedly charges Rs 200 to pay the relief of Rs 10,000 to the Aila victims and anything between Rs 20 to Rs 50 to help issue job cards and pay the pending wages for the work done under NREGA in the area. Similar allegations have come up against Mr Naru Biswas, postmaster of Parghumti.
“The postmaster have been paying Rs 2,000 to Rs 7,000 to whoever he wants. Some people who don’t even live in the area but possessed land have received the money. But those whose houses were damaged are yet to get the payment,” said a resident of Kalitala. He said that the postmaster said that the pradhan of the Kalitala gram panchayat has given him a list and he has been giving the money to the people whose names feature on the list. Many people living in the same house have got as much as Rs 30,000 while other victims have got nothing, he said.
However, the pradhan of the Kalitala gram panchayat, Mrs Deepti Mondol, said that she has not given any list to the postmaster. She also said that payment of Aila relief and NREGA wages is not pending in the area.
The Basirhat post office disburses the funds under NREGA and Aila relief to the Hatgatcha post office that provides money to both the Kalitala and Parghumti post offices.
The Hatgatcha post master, Mr Aditya Das, said: “Payment of a lot of money is pending. We have been asking the Basirhat post office to send us money. We have also heard of the allegations that the Kalitala postmaster and Parghumti postmasters take bribe but we don’t have any proof.”
The Kalitala postmaster, Mr Ramen Mandal, said that he is being victimised and that he has not taken any bribe. Mr Gopal Mondol, a member of the Kalitala gram panchayat and a Trinamul Congress leader, said that this is being done by a section of people who belong to the Opposition party to malign Mr Ramen Mondol and the gram panchayat’s image.
“Demonstrations are being held and a deputation is being prepared by those people just to destabilise us. Also, a postmaster has signatory authority to give Rs 5000 only at a time. How can he pay Rs 10,000, said Mr Gopal Mondol.
The Basirhat SDO, Ms Anamika Majumdar, said she has not heard of any such thing.

Soma Basu


Aila victims still in search of a livelihood

KOLKATA, 12 JUNE: A hasty move by the district administration of North 24-Parganas has deprived Aila-hit people in the Sunderbans of an opportunity to earn money for two months through a scheme ~ cash for work (CFW) ~ initiated by some NGOs in the area.
Even after the Pradhan of Kalitala gram panchayat, Mr Debesh Mondol, and the nodal officer of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) cell in North 24-Parganas, Mr Joly Chowdhury, admitted that many labourers have their wages pending for six to eight months, district magistrate, Mr Vinod Kumar, said that there has been no irregularities in the payment of wages. He told the NGOs ~ Save The Children, ADRA, ACTED and Concern Worldwide ~ supported by the European Commission and Directorate General for Humanitarian Aid (ECHO), to focus on other areas to avoid duplication of NREGA.
After almost two months, he called another meeting to clarify his suggestion and told the NGOs to continue with the scheme.
The DM said that there has been no irregularity in NREGA but people in the Aila-hit villages are still wating for their wages in many areas of Hingalgunj Block, Gosaba Block and Sandeshkhali-I and II. A labourer in Shamshernagar, Dulai Mondol, said: “In this condition, I have no other way left. I am thinking of going to the city to look for work.”
Mr Joly Chowdhury, said that there have been delay in paying the labourers on time because the post office and the bank takes a lot of time to release the draft.
When contacted, the DM, Mr Kumar said, after he had told the NGOs to stop the scheme: “It was just a suggestion not an order.” Soon he called for a meeting to clarify this to the NGOs.
However, Ms Poonam Mishra, programme officer of ADRA-India, said: “The DM had clearly told us not to go ahead with this scheme. And after two months he says that it was just a suggestion? Our project was an 11-month emergency programme and we have already lost two months.”

Soma Basu

Discrepancies in Aila relief distribution

KOLKATA, 31 MAY: More than 60 people from Kalitala in Hingalgunj Block, staged a demonstration in front of Hatgacha Post Office, Banderkhali, today after the postmaster of the Kalitala Post Office, Mr Ramen Mondol, refused to disburse relief of Rs 10,000 promised to Aila-victims for rebuilding their homes. It was also alleged that Mr Mondol had been distributing relief worth Rs 2,000 to Rs 7,000 to people from his house in Kalitala.
The relief money was transferred to the post-office on 24 April. Normally, it takes 7-15 days for the people to get the money, but the victims are yet to receive it. Moreover, the discrepancies are such that some families have received as much as Rs 30,000 while some have received nothing. “A person who lives in Basirhat and owns a couple of Bighas here have got the money, but those who are living under Tarpaulin are still awaiting the relief,” said Bapi Das, a resident of Kalitala. It was also alleged that the Mr Mondol demanded Rs 200 bribe from the people to give them the relief money.
An Aila-victim who still hasn’t received the money said: “The withdrawal form has already been signed but we are yet to get the money. The postmaster has been distributing money from his house. He has given Rs 2,000 to some and Rs 5,000 to another. When we asked on what basis is he distributing the money, he said that the pradhan and the panchayat members called him and gave him the names of the people who are to be given the money. He also said that the amount will have to be given in installments since he is scared to carry such a huge amount with him from the post office to his house.”
However, the Kalitala gram panchayat pradhan, Mrs Deepti Mondol, denied making any such call. Interestingly, she also said that everybody has got the relief money and when this correspondent asked her about the demonstration she said that she is in Sonarpur right now and cannot comment on this.
A resident of Kalitala, who took part in the demonstration today, said: “A person in the Hatgacha Post Office said that if we pay Rs 200 to Mr Mondol, we will get our money. We told the postmaster that if we get the total amount on paying Rs 200 then we are ready. But the postmaster still refused to go to Hatgacha.”
The SDO Bashirhat, Ms Anamika Majumdar, said: “As far as I know, only people who have been sanctioned the money have got it. I still haven’t received any written complaint. I will look into the matter and will initiate an inquiry if there are complaints against the postmaster.”

Soma Basu

Clinging on to the last bit of hope

GOSABA, 24 MAY: Sumi and Aila’s birthday present is milk and sweets brought from the money saved by their parents after starving for a day. Sumi Mondol of Dakhin Sreedhar Kati and Aila Mondol of Jharkhali were born during the cyclone last year. For them, the dark days are not yet over.
In Samshernagar, where all drinking water sources have turned saline after Aila, people bank on water trickling from a mould of mud near the embankment. They call it ‘Ganga’s gift’ to the hapless villagers and have kept it away from the reach of engineers and district administration officials. They consider their touch ominous.
“There was a Ganga temple here before Aila devastated Sunderbans. Months later, when all the drinking water sources had turned saline, water started trickling out of the place where the deity’s kalash was kept,” said Runa, who lives nearby. On being asked whether the water has been tested, Runa said that engineers had come but villagers did not let them touch it. “What if the stream dries again?” Runa asked.
In another part of Shamshernagar, people have made hamlets with tarpaulin sheets given to them just after the storm. “We don’t know for how many days we will have to carry on like this. The forest range is a stone’s throw from the region from where tigers stray into the village quite often. And on the other side is Bangladesh. We did not even get the relief money promised by the government. God help us if another Aila comes,” said one of the settlers.
In Jharkhali, a van-puller says the government cares for the tigers “but not us”. “There are so many projects to save the tigers. What about us? We are struggling to stay alive while the government is pitching for tourism here,” he said.
There are a total of 137 NGOs working in the region. Some NGOs, which want to work genuinely, face resistance from the government while others are operating just to make money since there has been a huge flow of international funds after Aila. Some NGOs that had initiated ‘cash for work’ scheme in the region were told to pull out since it “upsets the NREGA scheme in the area.” When it comes to NREGA, farmers have 6 months’ wages due.
Mr Tushar Kanjilal, a Sunderbans expert, said that engineers do not want to be transferred from Sunderbans since there is scope of earning a lot of money. A year after Aila, nothing has changed in Sunderbans. People have learnt to live with fear and those who cannot take it any more are moving out of the islands.
In Raidighi, Konkondighi, Rangabelia and Satjelia, families above poverty level were the worst sufferers. They lost whatever they had and are deprived of the benefits that BPL families are entitled to. The battered Sunderbans stand as a martyr of corruption, underdevelopment, poverty, starvation and ignorance.

Soma Basu

Home away from home

JHARKHALI, 24 MAY: Eight-month-old Madhu cries incessantly in her grandmother’s lap for her mother, who has to go to the city early in the morning and comes back late at night to earn money for her daughter’s milk and her old in-laws’ meal. She takes care of them all by herself after her husband left for Tamil Nadu in search of a job.
After Aila, Sunderbans has seen its women opening doors to tourists seeking ‘fun’ or working in city brothels and its men leaving the land to travel hundreds of kilometers away to work as daily labourers. The market in Jharkhali Islands no longer buzzes with people. A few from each family in the village have gone out to search for a place to live in the city.
“Farming has become impossible after Aila since most of the land has turned saline. We don’t even have enough fodder for our cattle. There is no option other than moving to a better place,” says Manju Mondol, whose house is in the interiors of the island. Three members of Manju’s family have gone to Kolkata. She stays with her old mother-in-law and says she too will leave for the city soon.
“Trafficking rate has always been high in South 24-Parganas, but after Aila there has been a rise in the number of cases since people in Sunderbans have become much more vulnerable after the cyclone. Every day a special train carrying domestic help leaves the station at 4 a.m. Some women work as maids while others head towards red-light areas or bars. Home-based prostitution has also gone up considerably,”said Mr Bhim Das, secretary of an NGO working on human trafficking in Sunderbans.
Mr Tushar Kanjilal, a Sunderbans expert, said women from these areas are taken to states such as Punjab and Haryana, where there is a disproportionate sex ratio. Women are also taken to New Delhi as governesses but are later sent to red light areas.
Near the shore were hamlets and makeshift tents ~ some occupied, some broken and deserted. People had their brick or mud houses just a couple of metres away ~ the place which is now completely submerged in water.
Children do not go to school any more as they have lost all their books and have only tatters to wear. Even mid-day meals cannot lure them.
Vast stretches of salt-crusted barren land greet visitors to these islands.
A Jadavpur University study in 2003 had predicted exodus from the Sunderbans. “We found that with the rising sea level and frequent cyclones there would be more vicious tidal surges and destruction. By 2020 about 70,000 would become climate refugees and overall 23 lakh would be affected. Many of them would go towards Kolkata,” said Prof Sugato Hazra, head of oceanographic department in Jadavpur University.
The settlers prefer Garia, Sonarpur, Patuli and Baruipur as these places are the closest they could get to the city by train. Those who have been brave enough have landed in the slums of Ultadanga, Khiddirpore and Park Circus. Some can also be spotted in makeshift tents under flyovers in the city.
Near Ultadanga, there is a colony called Basanti, named so by people who had come from Sunderbans. Mr Kanjilal said that people started moving out of the Sunderbans after a destructive cyclone in 1988, which had made the islands’ inhabitants insecure. Aila has reaffirmed their fear.

Soma Basu

Tears are all that it has left behind

KOLKATA, 24 MAY: With frequency of storms likely to rise in north Bay of Bengal, it seems nature has been conspiring against the people in Sunderbans already left homeless and hungry by Aila last year. The breaches in the embankments continue to scare inhabitants, who have lost their rice fields to saline water, and NREGA wages keep eluding them. They know that another Aila-like storm can wipe them off the islands.
A 100-year analysis of Bay of Bengal cyclones shows that 23 cyclones have struck 24 Parganas ~ the highest number of cyclones in that period among any other site on India’s east coast.
According to Dr K. Krishna Kumar, monsoon variability and predictability programme manager of the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune, “some changes are taking place in the monsoon rainfall character such as increase in the frequency and intensity of heavy rainfall at the expense of low rainfall, a substantial decline in monsoon depressions and increase in low-pressure systems.” Due to climate change, no significant change will be there in the frequency of cyclonic storms/monsoon depressions but the intensity of storms is likely to be higher by 10 per cent in the future, added Dr Krishna Kumar.
A report by Mr OP Singh, Mr Tariq Khan and Md. Sazedur Rahman of SAARC Meteorological Research Centre, Bangladesh, states that there has been a two-fold increase in the tropical cyclone frequency over the Bay of Bengal during November in the past 122 years. There has been a 17 per cent increase in the intensification rate of cyclonic disturbances to the cyclone stage, and a 25 per cent increase to severe cyclone stage over the north Indian Ocean during November, which accounts for the highest monthly average of severe cyclone frequency. The increasing trend in the cyclone frequency during May is also highly significant but the intensification rates to cyclone and severe cyclone stages have registered only slight increasing tendencies. The cyclonic frequencies during transitional monsoon months, June and September, have diminished considerably. “With the sea level rising, and frequency of cyclones increasing ~ and more often than not they work in tandem ~ there would be more vicious tidal surges and destruction by 2020,” said Sugato Hazra, head of the oceanographic studies department, JU.

Soma Basu

A shelter too far for cyclone & flood relief

JHARKHALI, 20 MAY: Laila is knocking at the door and residents of Sunderbans don’t even know what flood and cyclone shelters are. According to Mr Mortaza Hossain, state disaster management minister, there are 315 flood shelters in coastal areas of North and South 24-Parganas and Midnapore East. But, a visit to the places proved how difficult it is to locate them. Moreover, the centres are far from how they should be.
A member of an NGO working in Hingalgunj said the cyclone shelters are located very far from the villages. “People tend to be in their houses till the last moment during floods. And, when they finally leave for the flood shelter, it is so far away that there is a possibility they will die on their way,” said Pabitra Jogdar, resident of Kalitala, Hingalgunj Block.
When asked about the distance of cyclone shelters from the villages, Mr Mortaza Hossain, said: “I don’t know about this. These things were done before I took up this ministry.”
Moreover, the cyclone shelters are havens of local goons for the rest of the year. The villagers often use them to tether their cattle. Mr Tushar Kanjilal, a member of the task force formed by the Union ministry of water resources to assess the damage caused by Aila, said: “I had proposed that school buildings should be used as cyclone shelters. The cyclone or flood shelters are left unused for the rest of the year and hooligans take shelter there. If schools are developed into cyclone shelters, there will be better maintenance of the building and people would be able to use it when the time comes.”
However, an ideal cyclone shelter should be erected on columns to let floodwater pass and should have a medical unit on the upper floor. Models of cyclone shelters in Orissa and Tamil Nadu could be used as an example. Mr Hossain said the Centre had approved 200 cyclone shelters ~ 90 in South 24-Parganas, 50 in North 24-Parganas and 60 in Midnapore East ~ based on this model. Rs 200 crore was earmarked for the project. “We were later told that they would send a team to identify the location for constructing such multi-purpose cyclone shelters each with a budget of Rs 80-85 lakh. Site selection team has identified such places and now we are waiting for the work to begin,” said Mr Hossain.
When asked what will happen if Laila turns out to be severe, Mr Hossain said: “I have sent warnings to police stations, schools and BDOs and I have already sent tarpaulin, clothes and money to be distributed if there is any crisis.” On being told that Aila-victims are still waiting for relief, Mr Hossain said that owing to irregularities in the list prepared by the four-member committee ~ comprising the panchayat pradhan, panchayat samiti sabhapati, leader of the Opposition in the panchayat and the BDO ~ that is supposed to identify the people eligible for relief, the money to rebuild damaged houses has not been provided yet.
On the other hand, Mr Biswajit Roy Chowdhury, secretary of the Nature Environment and Wildlife Society (NEWS), said the Department of Architecture of Jadavpur University (JU) had structured a design for cyclone shelters. The JU will supervise the project while NEWS will provide funds. Eight cyclone shelters will be made each with a budget of Rs 28 lakh. The construction is scheduled to begin on 1 June, 2010, and will be finished before the monsoons hit.

Soma Basu

Laila likely to hit state

KOLKATA, 19 MAY: The cyclonic storm Laila is likely to hit the coastal areas of West Bengal and Orissa on Thursday night or Friday morning. Weathermen have forecast rains and squally weather in the city due to the cyclone in the coastal belt and have advised fishermen not to go out into the sea.
Laila is likely to intensify further and move in a northeasterly to northerly direction and cross the Andhra Pradesh coast between Nellore and Kakinada, close to Machilipatnam by Thursday morning. “After this, there is a chance that the cyclone will move towards Orissa and West Bengal affecting the weather in the coastal regions,” said Dr GC Debnath, director, Alipore Meteorological office. Finance minister Mr Asim Dasgupta held a meeting to discuss ways to handle disaster management in an efficient manner. The state has decided to send 4.28 lakh tarpaulins to the districts. Meanwhile, two persons were killed and four fishermen injured as heavy rains battered coastal Tamil Nadu while a full alert was sounded in Andhra Pradesh.

Panic grips Sunderbans

GOSABA, 19 MAY: A year after Aila lashed Sunderbans, the status of embankment repair in the cyclone-hit villages stands at zero and people are reeling under the fear that Laila, intensifying in the Bay of Bengal, will take away whatever little they had saved last year.
It is bhora kotal and the breaches in the embankment are gaping at the hapless villagers who have nowhere to go if the water gushes in again. They have already lost their lands to the saline water and are still awaiting the relief package of Rs 10,000 that the government had promised just after the storm wreaked havoc in the islands last year.
The Centre had promised assistance for embankment repair post-Aila, but according to Mr Subhas Nashkar, state irrigation minister, “the money was technically sanctioned at the end of March, 2010. On 30th March, we received only Rs 187 crore from the Centre. We had submitted the assessment report in December, 2009 and had asked for an assistance of Rs 6,000 crore.” Out of total 3,500 km of embankment, 778 km was destroyed during the storm. The minister said that because of cash crunch, new type of embankment couldn’t be constructed. However, the work of temporary protection is on.
In Roydighi, Kongkondighi, Jharkhali, Kultali, Rangabelia, Satjelia, Lahiripur, Chhoto-Mollakhali, Kumirmari, Hingalgunj, Kalitala and Shamshernagar, mud has been dumped on the damaged embankments in the name of repair. Farmers narrate how the land, which was once their rice field, has a crust of salt on it. “A tarpaulin sheet, a dhoti, a handful of dal and rice was all that we got as relief. We haven’t even got Rs 10,000 promised after Aila,” said Shambhu Mondol, a resident of Lahiripur.
Even if there is no cyclone or storm, the embankments are too weak to withstand the river currents. A portion of embankment was washed away in Pakhirala on Saturday and in Gobindakati on Sunday. Mr Tushar Kanjilal, Sunderban expert and a member of the task force formed by the Union ministry of water resources to assess the damage caused by Aila, says that the embankments were made 150 years ago and they are not based on any scientific approach.
Mr Nashkar said that by October-November, the state would acquire 200-mouza land for construction of embankments and the villagers will get relief for the first time since Aila.

Soma Basu

Rice fields then, salt banks now

Storms and cyclones have blurred the lines of economic and social divide in the Sunderbans. While people below the poverty line are either forced to migrate or live in even more deplorable condition, about a major chunk of the population on the islands, which was above the poverty line, bore the brunt by getting limited access to the relief sent during and post-Aila. Primarily farmers, some of these people’s land were inundated in the floods and some were left with salt-crusted tracts after the water receded. Families are now forced to buy all of the rice they need at Rs 22 a kg. Prices of vegetables have also skyrocketed. People have to manage on one to two meals a day.
A shopkeeper in Moirapara (Konkondighi, Sunderbans) shows the thick layer of hay strewn on the passage next to his shop. “Ei bar jomi te e chhara ar kichui hoye ni (this is all that has come out of our land this time),” said Gopal Nashkar who can still feed his family because of the shop he owns. But that is not enough. “My son is in 3rd year of college studying microbiology and my daughter is in class 12. I am no longer able to buy their books and give my son money so that he can go to his college which is very far. Both of them are thinking of dropping out and helping me run the shop” he added.
A woman from Jharkhali Island, Kalyani, who belonged to a joint family with her house buzzing with people all the time, is left with her aged in-laws in the house whose one side has collapsed after the cyclone. All other people who were young and capable have left for the city in search of jobs. All the land they owned have turned saline and growing anything there has become impossible. Even the ponds have turned into brackish pools.
“The ingression of saline water into the crop lands of the Sunderbans after Alia resulted in the soil salinity shooting up to 40 deciseimens in certain parts, more than five times the salinity an ordinary paddy plant can tolerate,” said Dr. BK. Bandyopadhyay, head of the Central Soil Salinity Research Institute’s regional research station at Canning in the State’s South 24-Parganas district. The situation was made worse by the late rains and the long time it took for the waters to recede, he added.
The lost land can be treated back to normal and the experts have even found a way to yield crops from land with high salinity level. However, not even a single person in Raidhigi, Konkondighi, Gosaba, Kultali and Jharkhali is aware of the ways to get his land back. Though teams were formed and policies were formulated to help such farmers and teach them concept of rainwater harvesting and multi-crop harvest, the plans and policies never reached the actual victims of the calamity. The salinity tolerant rice was not promoted at all in the islands where the farmers were already apprehensive.
Moreover, the farmers claim that even the saline resistant paddy is of no use. “Some people had come and they told us to harvest a new sort of rice. The paddy was costlier and we didn’t have money. Some people tried the new variety which was claimed to be able to survive in saline lands. But the yield was very poor. There was mostly hay which even the cattle would not eat,” said Shambhu Mondol, a farmer in Jharkhali.
According to Dr. Bandyopadhyay, there are more than a dozen varieties of saline-resistant paddy that have been developed of which CSR-4 and Canning-7 can withstand salinity of up to 9 deciseimens and are recommended for the region. Three months after Aila struck when the saplings were trans-located, “salinity had not declined sufficiently for normal varieties to survive.”
Farming of beet and carrot is less hurt by increased salinity. Whereas production of regular crops like rice and cereals are most affected. However, according to Nabard, the delta has practically become a single paddy crop region, also due to high iron content in ground water. Since the Aila devastation, there has been a frantic search for the salt-tolerant rice seeds created by the ancestors of the present Sunderban farmers, wrote Debal Deb, founder-chairman of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, in his paper Valuing Folk Crop Varieties for Agroecology and Food Security that was published online by the Bioscience Research Project.
Rabindra Narayan Basu, former chairman of the state agriculture commission, who had conducted salt stress experiment on different rice varieties, says: “The local varieties are more salt-resistant compared to the high yielding ones. The situation is quite a challenge in Sunderbans in that for farmers to return to the old varieties now will be difficult because the seeds are not available easily.”
“Salinity in agricultural land can be brought down by flushing it with freshwater and also by treating it with gypsum. Cultivation of saline tolerant rice varieties and multi-crop plantation is an option but people go for commercial rice which makes things difficult,” said Mr Sugata Hazra, head of oceanographic studies centre at Jadavpur University.
The farmers however claim that even if they go for multi-crop plantation, the results are the same. The land has become such that it yields nothing.
Mr Hazra said that rainwater harvesting is the need of the hour. “British used to make reservoirs with high walls to collect rain water. But now even the tube wells are in low areas. Boring up to the depth of 300ft is needed to set up tube wells. During cyclones even they are submerged. We are planning to install hand pumps at a height where one would have to use stairs to get to it. Many hand pumps have been sanctioned.”
But before endless political strife comes to an end, before teams are formed and findings are discussed, before NGOs organize trips to such area and government wake from its delightful slumber, hunger is an uninvited guest in every household.

Barren rice fields in Konkondighi.

Salt seen on the dry paddy fields in Kokondighi.

Gopal Nashkar infront of his shop. Hay was all that he got this harvest season.

Soma Basu