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No help in sight, villagers on the job
Race on against high tide

Gosaba, June 2: Hunger can wait, the hungry tide won’t.

Fewer people roamed the banks of the cyclone-ravaged Sunderbans today in anticipation of relief as men and women — young and old — set out on empty stomachs to join in the immediate task of repairing 900km of damaged embankments ahead of the full-moon high tide.

They did not have a choice, not after chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee visited them the other day to say with folded hands “ei kaajta apnader nijeder-i korte hobe (you will have to do the job yourself)”.

It was a sight to behold — rows and rows of villagers everywhere, cutting mud to raise the height of the embankments or plug the holes through which saline water has been inundating their homes and fields. At some places, fishermen used their nets to keep the mud-filled gunny bags from toppling over when waves lash the banks.

“I have been ferrying relief across the islands since the day after the cyclone, and I haven’t seen so few people lining the banks in the hope of food. The people are now more concerned about saving the Sunderbans than their hunger,” said boatman Babla Das, 50, steering a motorised launch through the choppy waters.

Till yesterday, hordes of villagers would be standing on each riverbank in anticipation of a boat laden with supplies. Some would even jump into the water at the sight of a motorised boat heading to the shore. Not today.

“Time is running out. The next full-moon high tide (expected from Thursday) could finish off the little that Aila has spared. If there’s a storm coming with the high tide, the Sunderbans will fall off the map,” warned retired schoolteacher Hirendranath Mondal.

Social activist and Sunderbans expert Tushar Kanjilal said merely raising the height of the embankments with sandbags would not do. “My experience of working here for decades has taught me that the height of an embankment does not matter as much as its strength. Last Monday (when Aila struck), 80 per cent of the embankments were damaged by the water’s undercurrent and not tidal waves.”

The Indian side of the Sunderbans has about 3,500km of embankments, around 400km of which was wiped out by cyclone Aila. Another 900km are damaged and could give way any moment.

Irrigation minister Subhas Naskar said it was beyond his department to do anything to save the islands now. “I am helpless,” he said.

An official said the department could only help motivate the villagers doing their job. “We neither have the expertise nor the manpower to repair the embankments.”

The minister claimed that around four lakh gunny bags had been distributed to strengthen the embankments. The requirement is 20 lakh.

“We are bringing more from Siliguri. A few truckloads are on their way,” Naskar said.

Ananda Mondal blames the humanitarian disaster on “32 years of letting things be”. He should know, having been a functionary of the CPM zonal committee till January. “There has been no maintenance in three decades. How can you expect these feeble embankments to withstand nature’s fury? The place where we are standing now could be gone in a couple of days,” said Ananda, 35, an unemployed MA in political science from Rabindra Bharati University.

According to experts, the only way Sunderbans can be — or could have been — saved is by adopting scientific strategies, like maintaining a data bank of the 10 “live” rivers that flow from the mangrove country to the Bay of Bengal.

“These rivers could be changing course and we wouldn’t even know about it. Knowing how they behave is crucial to limiting the damage they might cause when a cyclone like Aila strikes,” said Kanjilal.

So, whose responsibility is it to create and maintain such a data bank? “The Sunderbans Development Authority should have done it a long time ago. Bangladesh already has a data bank on some of its rivers,” said an NGO official monitoring distribution of relief.

The Satjelia and Kumirmari islands are the most vulne- rable to storms and high tides because of their proximity to the Bay. All 500-odd mud huts at Lux Bagan, on the eastern fringes of Satjelia, were flattened by Aila.

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