Bengal’s Amphan tragedy needs more national and global attention


In every briefing since January on the evolving Covid 19 crisis, the WHO Chief mentions the need for global solidarity to deal with a catastrophe of this nature. National unity and global solidarity remain the buzzwords according to Dr. Tedros to solve the problem. For cyclone Amphan ravaged-Bengal, the same yardstick should apply. It has been a crisis of unprecedented scale with more than 6 crore people impacted in the state. More than 10 lakh dwellings have collapsed in 24 parganas alone. Kolkata on 21 May, the day after the cyclone, looked like a ghost town. I had ventured out around noon and the streets that I could navigate (I could not enter 50 percent of the city’s streets), were speaking out one loud tale of devastation. Park Street, Southern Avenue, Rawdon Street, Loudon Street, all upscale Kolkata neighbourhoods, looked more like jungles than anything else. While I stood on Theatre road and looked at Loudon street, a posh Central-South Kolkata neighbourhood, all I could see was fallen trees and broken electric poles. Nothing else was visible. The city, it has to be emphasised, has never seen a catastrophe of this scale and magnitude. And if this is the story in Kolkata, 24 Parganas and Midnapur are worse. In these districts relief work is impacted because teams don’t have means to reach the affected spots. Roads have been decimated and thoroughfares are all under water.

To deal with a tragedy like this we need to muster every resource that we possibly can to try and rebuild. An example to substantiate the point. The Bengali diaspora, which is well spread out across the world will inevitably have a sense of nostalgia for the College Street Book market, a heritage site of the city. The market today stands destroyed. Books worth a crore have been damaged and sellers are left with wet or damaged stock, which threatens to throw them out of business. Now if this news reaches the men and women of the city who are spread across the world there is every reason to believe there will be a call to action. A micro plan can then be made to resurrect College Street. It can be purely a civil society driven action plan led by academics and intellectuals working in close proximity with the book sellers and civic officials. To expect that the government will mount all relief efforts is a mistake. The government can’t. It doesn’t have the means and never will.

The scale of destruction is such that we need synergy. We need a partnership between government and private initiatives and civil society. We need the diaspora to step in and play an active role. And that’s where we have fallen short. The coverage in the world media, so far atleast, has been negligible. Major platforms have hardly reported the tragedy. As a result people aren’t aware of the scale and magnitude of the devastation. To put it in context- in 3 months India has 1.4 lac people infected with covid-19. 60,000 have already recovered and the recovery rare is touching 42 percent. With Amphan we have 6 crore people who are impacted. Hundreds of millions have lost livelihoods and are on the streets. And each of these men and women have to deal with covid-19 as well. While dealing with the corona virus needs social distancing, Amphan evacuation meant we had to cram maximum people in shelters to protect lives. If that has impacted infection rates, god save us. “We don’t have water and we don’t have electricity. Wearing a mask can wait”, said an angry villager to one of the law enforcement officials. That’s the irony of the whole situation- we are dealing with a volcano and an avalanche at the same time. All we need now is a voice and the world media is the only option to make us heard.

In sum, we need more national awareness of what has happened in Bengal. We need people to write, talk, tweet, comment, post, showcase and argue. We need dialogue across the world to highlight the plight of millions. We need to showcase how the state is working on war footing to get things back on track. In 4 days the synergy between government and civil society has ensured that 96 percent of Kolkata has power back. The rest of the city should be back in a day. This is despite the lockdown and the truncated labour force available. We need the world to see these efforts and subsequently contribute to such efforts for only then can true global solidarity play out in reality.

In the case of a hurricane it takes 9-10 days for power to come back in parts of the world. During cyclone Aila in 2009 it took 8 days for things to return to normal in Bengal. Amphan has caused destruction, which is 10 times higher and yet we should have some semblance of functionality in a week. We need the world to see this and help us going forward. If that happens, the functionality can be taken two steps ahead and normalcy can return much faster than anticipated. We need to empower the men and women who are suffering and that can only happen if the world understands and highlights the goings on in Kolkata. Bengal is not a remote island that can be left to fend for itself. It is as much part of the global dialogue as New York or Mumbai is. If there could be global synergy for the Australian Bushfires, there is no reason why the world can’t come together for Bengal. Yes, there is recession everywhere. Yes, our resources are stretched at the moment. But that doesn’t stop us from sharing the ground reality and trying to come together.

The road ahead is a long and tough one. At the same time there is no reason to lose hope. The truth is Amphan is beyond us. The worst is over and it can only get better. The world can help speed up the process.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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