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Politics of Aila, caked in mud and apathy

- House & river barrier grouse
what they got
what they need

Kultali (South 24-Parganas), July 18: Four years after Aila flattened Gopalganj and Kaikhali in the Sunderbans, the villages are as unprotected as they were back in 2009, say residents.

Another storm may wreak destruction or the Matla may wash away the villages as there are hardly any cement embankments or concrete houses.

The Matla circumscribes three sides of Gopalganj and Kaikhali, over 85km from Calcutta. The villages are among those where the panchayat elections will be held tomorrow.

“We were not prepared in 2009. There was no information from the panchayat that a cyclone would hit the coast. We started to flee when we saw that water had entered our homes,” said a villager.

But if another cyclone like Aila were to strike, Gopalganj and Kaikhali would be as ill-prepared as 2009.

“Barely one kilometre of concrete embankment has been made. The rest is made of mud that can get washed away even in high tide, leave alone Aila,” said Banamali Pramanik, who lives in Kaikhali.

The state irrigation department was supposed to build the embankments but the plan has remained largely on paper.

Soon after Aila struck in May 2009, the central government formed a task force to assess the situation and take measures to secure the coastal region from the onslaught of cyclones. The task force submitted its report within three months. Tushar Kanjilal, an expert in affairs of Sunderbans, was a member of the task force.

“After the report was submitted, the government decided to build embankments along 740km of the Sunderbans to save the villages on the coast. A Rs 5,030-crore project was sanctioned. Barely 15 per cent of that work has been done,” Kanjilal said.

Gopalganj and Kaikhali were among the worst affected villages in the Sunderbans. Both the villages fall under the Gopalganj gram panchayat that was won by the CPM in 2008. Of the 19 seats in the gram panchayat, CPM won 10, the SUCI eight and Trinamul won just one. But Trinamul formed the South 24-Parganas zilla parishad board last time.

Villagers cited the indifference of the state government as a reason for the stalled work on building the embankments.

The embankment problem, district officials said, was also related to Bengal’s larger issue of land acquisition.

When the embankment work started in 2009, in some patches several claimants sprang up during land acquisition. In some cases, villagers lacked documents to prove ownership of the land and when they realised they would not get compensation, they chose not to give the plot. The state government, given its hands-off land policy, stalled work, a district official said.

“No one from the zilla parishad or the Trinamul Congress ever came to see our plight. There is a Sunderban affairs minister. But where is he? He has never come to see our plight though we lost our houses and fields to Aila,” said Kaikhali villager Lakshan Haldar, 46.

A visit to the villages showed that about 70 per cent of the houses are of mud and straw, vulnerable even to strong gusts of wind.

Gulehar Bibi, 60, lives in such a mud hut in Kaikhali with her mentally-challenged son, Noor Mohammad Laskar, 35, and husband Abdullah Laskar, 65.

Her other son works as a tailor in Dakshin Barasat. Her four daughters are married.

“We do not have any land. My husband works in the fields. When there isn’t any work during winter, he has to go far away in search of work,” she said.

The family did not seem to know about the 100-day work scheme or didn’t get a pucca house under the Indira Awas Yojana, something the panchayat could have helped her with.

The villagers are not happy with the performance of the CPM-run Gopalganj panchayat. The complaint is that people close to the CPM got the grant for pucca houses under the Indira Awas Yojana.

A villager summed up why the village was still in such a pitiable state.

“We have always been unfortunate. While the Trinamul is in power in the zilla parishad and the state, the gram panchayat was won by the CPM. Had the Trinamul won here, there could have been some development work,” said Mohammad Shah Alam Sardar, who got a Rs 24,000 grant from the panchayat in February to build a pucca house.

Most of the rehabilitation work — installing taps, repairing roads and building pucca houses — after Aila was done by the Ramakrishna Mission at Kaikhali.

All that the affected villagers got from the administration was Rs 10,000 for the houses that were fully destroyed and Rs 2,500 for the partially-destroyed houses.

After Trinamul came to power, Mamata Banerjee announced that BPL card holders in the Aila-affected areas would get rice worth Rs 16 a kilo for Rs 2 a kilo each month. But unscrupulous dealers came in the way and a government did not monitor anything, some of the villagers said.

“For the first six months, we got only 8kg rice. When we put pressure on the dealer he agreed to give 15kg. Still he doesn’t give us our full quota. None of the parties says anything,” said a woman.